LA MARQUE — Two school board trustees testified Tuesday about the firing of the district’s former police chief, who has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming he was wrongfully terminated while under indictment on a criminal charge that was later dismissed.
Russel Washington, who said he has struggled with stress-related illness and been unable to find work in law enforcement since his termination, is seeking $10 million in damages from the La Marque school district.
The district’s former director of human resources, Rollie Ford, testified Washington was given several opportunities to defend his job and explain the criminal investigation against him before he was fired March 25, 2010. Attorneys for the school district have said former Superintendent Ecomet Burley, who recommended Washinton’s termination, needed to take action to dispel a dark cloud over the school district because of the indictment against its police chief.
Trustee Shirley Fanuiel, who was indicted in March on a charge of felony theft from an elderly person, was one of three trustees who voted against firing Washington.
Fanuiel said facts in the case against Washington had been murky. She said the chief deserved to keep his job.
“What I do know is that indictment is not guilty,” she said.
Trustee Annie Burton, who was also on the board in 2010 and voted against firing Washington, said school board policy indicated that “if a person has not been found guilty, they cannot be terminated.”
Burton, a friend of Washington’s and a trustee for seven years, said the former police chief was wrongfully fired and not given a chance to defend himself.
During a sometimes heated cross-examination by an attorney representing the school district, Burton said she had been concerned about negative publicity stemming from Washington’s indictment, but did not believe he deserved to lose his job.
Before the 4-3 vote to fire Washington, Burton brought up a concern about a conflict of interest involving then-trustee Cynthia Bell-Malveaux, who at the time had a pending defamation lawsuit against the former police chief, she said.
Washington was recorded alleging a school board trustee was accepting bribes.
Bell-Malveaux, who later dropped her lawsuit against Washington, voted to fire the police chief.
Since Washington’s termination, the often embattled school district has dissolved its police department, hired a new superintendent and seen significant turnover on its board of trustees.
Fanuiel spoke highly of Washington’s tenure at the school district.
“He was the police chief during a time when the district flourished and everything was in harmony,” Fanuiel said.
When later prompted by U.S. Circuit Judge Gregg Costa to elaborate on changes in the district, Fanuiel said the district had been regularly recognized for academic achievement from 1995 to 2000.
Costa asked Fanuiel what she thought had changed in the district.
“Leadership,” she said.