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Plum residents worry they may pay for ex-chief's award

| Friday, Oct. 3, 2003

PLUM: A federal jury's decision to award more than $1 million to Plum Police Chief Terry Focareta has some residents wondering who ultimately will pay the price.

"I'm upset with that," said Andy Koerner, 70, of Plum, a visitor Thursday at Holiday Park Shopping Center. "The citizens will pay."

A federal jury Wednesday awarded Focareta, 55, more than $1 million after having declared that he was unjustly fired.

The jury of four men and four women unanimously found that all nine defendants -- Plum Mayor John Schmeck, Council President Clem Barbarino, six councilmen and Solicitor Bruce Dice -- violated Focareta's First Amendment rights by having fired him in retaliation for his investigations of borough officials and their relatives.

The jury also found all the defendants, except Dice, liable under the federal whistleblower law. The defendants also were found guilty of breach of contract for their refusal to pay Focareta his pension benefits.

"It's politics as usual -- one faction against another," said Alex Righi, 53, of Plum. "Someone stepped on someone else's toes."

Righi said the amount of the damages awarded to Focareta surprised him.

The jury awarded Focareta a total of $1.13 million in damages -- $550,000 for pain and suffering; $200,000 for denial of pension benefits; $300,000 in compensatory damages under the whistleblower law; $39,722 in back pay; and punitive damages totaling $47,400, with the jury assessing each defendant between $750 and $15,000.

Jurors rejected the defendants' claims that they fired Focareta on Jan. 24, 2002 because he falsely claimed in 2001 that a police candidate had failed a polygraph test. The borough has until the end of the month to appeal.

Righi said he's not sure that Plum officials had plotted to fire Focareta.

"It's hard to believe that all seven members of council were in collusion to do this with Bruce (Dice) and John (Schmeck)," he said.

Righi said he won't be pleased if the borough, after the appeals process, must pay the damages to Focareta.

"I won't be happy if it comes from us -- from the taxpayers," Righi said. "Nothing good will happen."

Bob Laughlin, 77, of Plum, called the jury award excessive.

"He has been out of there for so long," Laughlin said. "To give him that kind of payment is crazy."

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