As the third anniversary of Hurricane Rita approaches later this month, the actions of one of the area's law enforcement officers in the days following the devastating storm is under scrutiny in a Jefferson County courtroom.
The trial of Larry Roccaforte vs. Jefferson County et al kicked off Monday, Sept. 8, in the court of Judge Milton Shuffield, 136th District Court.
Roccaforte, a former chief constable for Precinct 7, filed a civil suit against the county and his fellow officers in June 2006, after he was fired for allegedly not returning to duty following Hurricane Rita and for forging a court document. He is suing the county for lost wages and benefits, plus mental anguish damages.
In his suit, Roccaforte says his demotion and firing came "after media attention was directed to the ineffectiveness of federal and state representatives and the apparent lack of some local officers to be present in the area" after the Category 3 hurricane struck Southeast Texas on Sept. 24, 2005.
Precinct 7 Chief Deputy Jeff Greenway, a defendant in the suit, testified that he demoted and put Roccaforte on 90 days probation for not reporting in after Rita, and then fired him three months later for allegedly lounging around at home while he was on duty.
Court documents and testimony show that Roccaforte had indeed returned to duty almost immediately after the storm cleared, but failed to report in with Greenway.
Shortly after Roccaforte's demotion for alleged dereliction of duty, Greenway said in court that Roccaforte's wife called Greenway a "sorry son of a (expletive)" in public and in front of another constable. The other constable reported the incident to Greenway.
The incident served as another false catalyst for Roccaforte's firing, said plaintiff's attorney Larry Watts.
Watts also represents Keith Breiner, the Beaumont police officer that has been in the media spotlight recently for having sex with prostitutes during a sting operation. Breiner was present in the courtroom Tuesday, observing the Roccoforte trial.
Watts pointed out that Greenway's original deposition and current testimony differed, and the lawyer insinuated that Greenway added the foul language to "spice" his testimony with "animosity" to perhaps demonize the Roccafortes.
Roccaforte's firing was cemented on Jan. 5, 2006, when Greenway had another of his constables spy on Roccoforte.
According to court documents and testimony, the constable reported that Roccaforte remained at his home from 7:57 a.m. to 1:53 p.m. Jan. 5 when he was supposed to be on duty. No attempt was made to contact Roccaforte to find out why he was at home.
During his testimony, Roccaforte contended he was not lounging around at home and presented a court document proving he had served a citizen at 9 a.m. Jan. 5.
Greenway testified that he believed the document was an illegal forgery and used the document as grounds for Roccaforte's termination.
Watts contended his client was fired on bogus accusations and said the incident may have unjustly prevented Roccaforte, who now works at a refinery, from being hired by another law enforcement department.
"You tell me why … for some strange reason an officer with 20 years of experience … couldn't get a job," testified Roccaforte, adding that most departments wouldn't even give him a reason for their refusal to hire him.
In a move designed to demonstrate Greenway's character, Assistant District Attorney Tom Rugg, representing the county, asked Roccaforte if he had an affair on county time.
Roccaforte answered yes, and said in 1997 he drove his police cruiser to a motel and had sex while on duty.
Rugg then asked if Greenway "went to bat" for him by not having him fired over the incident.
Roccaforte said he could have been fired for it, and that Greenway's disciplinary actions "were beneficial" to him.
Roccaforte testified that Greenway told him to say he was on comp time, not regular duty, during the encounter with the woman. No documentation, such as Roccaforte's time card, was produced as evidence to show how his time was actually recorded.