Shiner’s former police chief is suing the city and claiming city officials retaliated against him for requesting the Lavaca County attorney investigate activity he perceived to be illegal.
The lawsuit comes after a July City Council meeting where a Shiner police sergeant — who is married to the council member connected to the activity the former chief suspected was illegal — expressed concerns about the former chief’s methods. City officials discussed department personnel issues during the meeting in executive session, which led to a unanimous vote to suspend the former chief.
In the federal lawsuit filed Oct. 4 in the Southern District of Texas, Zachary Kramer claims city officials suspended him unjustly with intent to terminate his employment, violated his First Amendment rights by taking adverse action in response to public comments he made during the July city council meeting, and violated the Texas Whistleblower Act by retaliating after he expressed concerns about three iPads used at the expense of the Shiner Police Department to the county attorney, who opened an investigation into the matter.
According to the lawsuit, city officials took actions to remove Kramer, 38, after he asked the Lavaca County attorney to investigate whether three iPads that — unbeknownst to him — had cellular data plans at the expense of the police department for an unknown amount of time. Kramer discovered the iPads after the city secretary contacted him about a higher than usual cellphone bill for the department in June.
The city secretary, Natalie Fric, told Kramer she did not know where the iPads were being used. Worried the iPads may be connected to internal theft or external fraud or were attributed to the department by mistake, Kramer contacted the county attorney, Kyle Denney, about the devices. He was later told they were paid for with CARES Act funds and were being used by the volunteer fire department, according to the lawsuit.
Following the conversation with Denney, Fric told Kramer he could “get a lot of people in trouble” as a result of requesting the county attorney’s office to investigate the usage of the iPads, according to the lawsuit.
Fric declined to comment on the situation on Tuesday because the lawsuit had not been served to the city yet, she said. The city will likely be represented by lawyers with the Texas Municipal League, she said.
One of the council members, Michael Furrh, who is the assistant fire chief of the Shiner Volunteer Fire Department, confronted Kramer about the iPads and about requesting Denney investigate, according to the lawsuit.
Furrh, who is also the Lavaca County Emergency Medical Services director, declined on Tuesday to discuss the lawsuit or the allegations by Kramer.
Furrh confronted Kramer in a way that was “aggressive and meant to be intimidating,” according to the lawsuit. Furrh asked Kramer why he did not come to him first before initiating an investigation by the Lavaca County attorney.
Denney could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
It was unclear Tuesday whether an investigation was opened into the iPads and what, if any, outcome was reached. Furrh, also, declined to answer questions about the iPads.
Just days later on July 4, Kramer was notified that all his police officers, including himself, were listed for an executive session to review appointments, evaluation, complaints and dismissals, according to the lawsuit.
During the July 7 meeting, the one that led to Kramer being suspended, all of his officers were in attendance.
Furrh’s wife, Sgt. Tierra Furrh with the Shiner Police Department, spoke at length during the meeting about Kramer’s tenure at the department. She said Kramer treated the officers unfairly, dispensed unorthodox punishments and threatened demotions, according to a seven-page letter she read aloud during the meeting.
Michael Furrh excused himself from the room during his wife’s comments but attended the two executive sessions where council members discussed those comments, according to the lawsuit.
After the executive session, the council voted to place Kramer on a 14-day, with-pay suspension while an internal investigation was conducted. Two weeks later, on July 21, the council voted to extend Kramer’s suspension to Aug. 2.
On Aug. 2, Kramer resigned from his position.
San Antonio attorney Adam Poncio, who specializes in employment law, was retained by Kramer. He said the city unjustly moved to oust his client.
Kramer chose to resign once he heard city officials were reaching out to other officers about Sgt. Tierra Furrh’s comments, Poncio said, because the city was building their case to terminate him.
“In my experience, that means they are looking for a justification to terminate employment,” he said Tuesday.
Poncio said litigation is the fastest way to gather information about the months leading up to the suspension, including about the iPads. He said he sent a letter to the city to preserve evidence.
In the lawsuit, Kramer is asking for a city declaration that he was never lawfully disciplined, suspected or subject to termination in accordance with Texas law and that he should not have been.
The whistleblower portion of the lawsuit asks Kramer be reinstated as police chief unless a judge finds it is not feasible to do so. In that case, Poncio said, Kramer would be due front pay, which includes attorneys’ pay and costs.
Poncio said he does not think a judge will find it feasible for Kramer to return to work as police chief should they win the lawsuit.
“Shiner is a small town and the reputational damage is already done, not to mention the players in this are city officials and politicians,” he said. The prospect of Kramer getting his job back is slim also because the council hired Kevin Kelso, who formerly worked at the Victoria and Beeville police departments, as Shiner’s new police chief on Oct. 4, the same day the lawsuit was filed. “I think it is very unlikely.”
The lawsuit also asks that a jury trial be held to determine whether Kramer should be compensated.
Kramer was police chief of the Shiner Police Department for a year and had served as an officer for more than 14 years in total prior to his resignation.