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Gilpin police chief, officer sue township over suspensions

- Ralph Varrato is a former Gilpin police officer.
Ralph Varrato is a former Gilpin police officer.
Submitted - Dan Clark is the former Gilpin police chief.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Submitted</em></div>Dan Clark is the former Gilpin police chief.

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Friday, April 25, 2014, 12:03 p.m.
 

Two former Gilpin police officers filed suit this week, claiming their constitutional rights were violated when the township suspended them last fall.

In a federal lawsuit made public on Friday, Chief Daniel G. Clark Sr., now of Sigel, Jefferson County, and Officer Ralph D. Varrato, of Shuster Hollow Road, Gilpin, are seeking back pay, benefits, legal fees and punitive damages. The suit does not specify a dollar amount being requested.

Named as defendants in addition to the township are current Supervisors Chairwoman Christine Pastva and former Supervisors Janine Remaley, Michael Steimer and Ryan Sprankle.

Clark and Varrato were suspended from their jobs in November. Township officials never have said publicly the exact reasons for either suspension nor have they held hearings, private or public, to detail the charges against the men.

The only explanation given was at the Dec. 9 Gilpin supervisors meeting, when Ramaley, who was then supervisors' chairwoman, read a prepared statement that said Clark was suspended because of the “condition of the police station,” and the alleged “inability” of officers to get into the evidence locker, failure to provide “requested information” and unspecified “actions of the chief of police.”

Varrato was suspended for “failure to execute duties.”

The lawsuit claims the suspensions were illegal because:

• There were no pre-suspension police appeal hearings — commonly referred to as Loudermill hearings.

• The men were denied post-suspension administrative and court appeal rights.

• A Nov. 26 search of the police chief's office by supervisors and the confiscation of personal items from the office and its computers violated the men's constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure.

Pennsylvania State Police and the Armstrong County District Attorney's Office investigated the Nov. 26 search but concluded no laws were violated even though the then-supervisors used tools to break the lock protecting the office.

On Dec. 10, the District Attorney's Office agreed to conduct an inventory of the Gilpin Police Department's evidence locker and related areas at the request of supervisors and D.A. Scott Andreassi.

The lawsuit alleges that supervisors accessed computers in the chief's office that contained Clark's and Varrato's private computer data.

The township has argued that the officers had no expectation of privacy rights for the office, desk, computers and lockers because they were township employees.

However, the lawsuit asserts that the Constitution bans unreasonable searches and seizures and that even some public employees, such as police officers, are “entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy in their place of work.”

By entering the office and getting access to computer data and other information, the search was unlawful and was an invasion of privacy, the lawsuit alleges.

Pastva declined to comment on the suit Friday. Lawyers for the township did not respond to calls placed to their offices Friday.

Remaley resigned in March because she was moving out of the township. Steimer and Sprankle left office when their terms expired in December.

Clark, who has since moved out of the county, never formally was fired. Varrato was informed by letter this month from supervisors that his “services are no longer required.”

In the suit, both men say they have been replaced by other officers.

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com.

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