A former Jefferson County constable won his case against the county and was awarded more than $125,000 on Monday, Sept. 29, in spite of what his attorney said was the Southeast Texas Record's "fascist" and "anti-American" coverage.
As the Southeast Texas Record reported in early September, the trial of Larry Roccaforte vs. Jefferson County et al kicked off Sept. 8, in Judge Milton Shuffield's 136th District Court, but was abruptly delayed for two weeks while the area recovered from Hurricane Ike.
Roccaforte, a former chief constable for Precinct 7, filed a civil suit against the county and his fellow officers in June 2006, alleging his constitutional rights were violated when he was fired for not reporting to duty following Hurricane Rita in 2005 and for forging a court document while on probation.
The jury agreed Roccaforte's constitutional rights were violated, awarding him $126,250 in damages.
"It was an excellent verdict," Roccaforte's attorney Larry Watts said in a telephone interview. "The jury system, which your paper (the Record) hates ... is the basis of democracy."
Watts went on to accuse the Record's owner, Institute for Legal Reform, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, of tampering with the jury system and of being a bunch of "crooks peddling snake oil."
"You are (the Record) not a pro-American journal ... it is a fascist and unconstitutional paper," he said, adding that American courts allow powerful figures to be brought to justice without gun fire.
During the interview, however, Watts admitted that he did not read any Record articles written over the course of the trial.
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 Watts.
During the 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.
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.
Assistant District Attorney Tom Rugg represented the county.
Case No. D177-131