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Williston Agreed to Limit Disclosures About Two Cops Accused of Misconduct

By

ROB DONNELLY
  • Rob Donnelly

Someone had slammed a car into the mailboxes. 

Colchester police officers who responded to a rental home near Clay Point on September 13 found car parts strewn about the broken posts — and a clue not far away. A gray Volkswagen in the home's driveway had a damaged front end, a missing side-view mirror and a rear windshield that was "broken out," the officers noted. 

The car's owner, Timothy Oliver, a police officer in Williston who lived at the home, was not at the scene. His landlord had called in the crash just before 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning. The Colchester officers contacted Oliver and asked him about it. He initially told them that he would fix the mailboxes but claimed the damage to his car was old. When one of the officers replied that the damage appeared to be fresh, Oliver said he hadn't been driving the car, according to court records.

Later the same day, Colchester police returned to Oliver's residence, this time after an anonymous caller requested a welfare check on a woman who lived with him. She told the officers she was upset because her Harley-Davidson parked in the yard had been mangled, and she didn't believe Oliver's explanation that it had simply fallen over. But the woman, who later said she didn't know whether she could trust the officers, told them she did not need a protective order and wasn't scared for her safety. They left.

Colchester shelved its investigation, even though Chief Douglas Allen said the department had "indicators" that Oliver "may not have been honest" with his officers. They couldn't prove their cross-county colleague had been driving the car, Allen said. The chief instead called up Williston Police Chief Patrick Foley to convey his concern.

It wasn't the first heads-up Williston had received about Oliver. A month earlier, on August 15, a Milton officer on the overnight shift clocked a Williston police cruiser barreling along Interstate 89 at 107 miles per hour without its emergency lights on. Forty minutes later, the same cruiser sped by in the opposite direction at about 90 mph, Milton Police Chief Steve Laroche said. Word of the encounter made its way to Williston supervisors, who later told Laroche that it was Oliver's cruiser.

Ten days after the Colchester incident, Oliver was out of a job. He wasn't fired — not technically, at least. He and the town of Williston made a deal, spelled out in a nine-page separation agreement obtained by Seven Days

Oliver is one of two Williston cops who departed last year after being accused of wrongdoing, only to secure separation agreements that could help them land on their feet. In exchange for leaving quietly, Oliver, who had been hired in 2018, received benefits "over and above" those which he was entitled in the union contract, including two extra weeks of pay at his $24.28 hourly wage, the cash equivalent of 95 hours of accrued vacation and an agreement that Williston would not oppose his unemployment eligibility.

These deals contained more than financial assurances. The town also promised to limit how the officers' alleged misconduct would be disclosed to future employers and to a state oversight agency. That's despite a 2017 state law known as Act 56 that is supposed to stop police misconduct from being brushed under the rug.

In Oliver's case, the town agreed not to make any statements that might harm his reputation and to provide only basic information to prospective employers. In the other instance, Williston negotiated with 20-year veteran sergeant Scott Graham over how the department would report on-duty misconduct allegations to the Vermont Criminal Justice Council, which regulates police officers' certification. 

"It appears that agencies are using these separation agreements to undermine the intent and effectiveness and spirit of Act 56," said Lia Ernst, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, when presented with the documents. 

Williston Police Chief Foley and Town Manager Erik Wells declined to answer questions about the officers or the allegations against them, describing their departures as personnel issues. Wells provided the separation agreements in response to a public records request and maintained that they were executed in compliance with Act 56.  

"The process of terminating a public employee may be drawn out, and it may be costly," Wells wrote in an email. "On a general basis, municipal employers may use separation agreements to ensure a quick separation that prevents further litigation and allows the employer to be a good steward of public funds."

The circumstances surrounding Oliver's resignation are only emerging publicly because the woman who lived with him came forward to police in December to accuse the former officer of domestic abuse and to offer an account of the September 13 crash. As a result of the renewed criminal investigation, Oliver was charged this month in Vermont Superior Court with misdemeanor domestic assault for allegedly breaking the woman's finger, as well as unlawful mischief, providing false information to police and leaving the scene of an accident.

Oliver's court-appointed attorney declined to comment. The criminal case is pending.

Lawmakers passed Act 56 in response to cases in which police chiefs were not effectively screening out recruits who had committed serious misconduct in previous law enforcement jobs. The law mandates that Vermont police departments fully investigate misconduct, even if an officer has already resigned, and report the findings to the Vermont Criminal Justice Council. The council was in turn tasked with tracking the reports and given broader authority to sanction or decertify an officer. 

The law also requires that police departments obtain information about prospective recruits from other law enforcement agencies where they've previously worked.

The Williston deals raise questions about whether separation agreements have been used to skirt that requirement.

The council's interim director, Bill Sheets, said the requirement "essentially" means that departments must hand over a former officer's personnel file, regardless of any deal struck between an officer and the former employer. The law itself isn't so specific: Departments must simply "disclose the reason that officer is no longer employed," according to the statute. And new legal paperwork used by departments states that the mandate doesn't apply in instances when the officer has in place "a binding non-disclosure agreement executed prior to October 1, 2020."

Williston's June 2020 separation agreement with Graham states explicitly that the town will only confirm his dates of employment, wage rate and "that he resigned without disparagement, implied or actual."

"No other information will be released, and it will be explained that it is standard practice for the Town to not provide any other information with respect to former employees," the agreement reads.

Ernst said the provision appears to be "in direct violation" of the state law. But Wells, the Williston manager, said neither agreement prevents the town from "disclosing the officer's personnel file, or its analysis of the officer's performance, to a prospective employer."

What Graham is accused of doing remains unclear. His separation agreement states that the town completed an investigation "into various allegations of misconduct" but agreed not to take a position on whether any of his actions qualify as misconduct under Act 56. It does state that the town determined it had to report the allegations to the Criminal Justice Council. Curiously, it also stipulates that the town "has determined it is not obligated to report the nature of the allegations" to the council [emphasis added].

Sheets said chiefs must report allegations in a timely fashion, and then complete a full investigation of them. Once the investigation is finished, chiefs must send the investigation file to the council for review. The council is then supposed to verify that the local department's investigation met minimum standards. If the allegations are substantiated and meet certain criteria, the council can sanction the officer's certification, though it has not disciplined any officers since the law took effect. 

Practically speaking, all of these cases play out under a legal shroud of confidentiality. The council posts a register of all closed cases online, but the details are minuscule and inconsistent. The register doesn't even identify which department submitted the report.

A listed report for June 2020, the month Graham agreed to resign, described a first-offense "gross professional misconduct" complaint and policy violation. As for the investigation outcome, the register states: "Officer Resigned. Cased close [sic]."

Sheets acknowledged that the public register needs improvement, though the overall misconduct process remains largely secret unless the council ever formally sanctions an officer. The council had a leadership void for most of 2020 and still has a backlog of more than 30 reports to review, Sheets said. The council has asked lawmakers to fund investigator and staff attorney positions to better carry out its oversight responsibilities.

Last fall the legislature expanded the council's membership, and in January the council convened a subcommittee that is now dedicated to overseeing misconduct reporting.

Under the current process, Sheets said, any separation agreements between agencies and former employees would not affect how Act 56 proceedings are conducted. "We are going to do due diligence," he said.

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George said her office dropped an unspecified number of criminal cases that had been investigated by Graham and Oliver. She cited the opaque references to a misconduct investigation in Graham's separation agreement as "enough for me not to feel comfortable calling him as a witness."

Seven Days was not able to locate contact information for Graham. 

As for Oliver, George took the additional step of writing a letter to Foley, the Williston chief, on September 28, the week after the separation agreement was inked, in which she said she would not prosecute any cases investigated by Oliver should he return to law enforcement. She also instructed Foley to include her letter in Oliver's personnel file "so any future law enforcement agencies that he may apply at will have access to this information."

George's intervention was likely enough to prevent Oliver, 29, from wearing a badge again in Chittenden County, even before the criminal case against him was filed. Sometime last fall, he walked into the Winooski Police Department and asked a lieutenant if they had any open positions, Chief Rick Hebert confirmed. The department was hiring at the time, the chief said, but Oliver never submitted an application.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Nothing to See Here | Williston agreed to limit disclosures about two cops accused of misconduct"