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Former Baltimore police deputy commissioner appointee files defamation suit over release of memo

A former Baltimore police officer has filed a defamation lawsuit after he was appointed to serve as deputy commissioner but lost the job after a memo that he said was inaccurate was sent to the news media.

The memo claimed that Thomas Cassella, a 23-year Baltimore Police Department veteran, had two sustained internal complaints against him, including one alleging racial discrimination. That prompted then-commissioner Darryl De Sousa in February to withdraw Cassella’s appointment, the complaint said.

At the time, De Sousa told reporters that the decision to withdraw Cassella’s appointment was mutual, but the complaint alleges that Cassella was never consulted and that he continues to be affected negatively by the misinformation, especially after a U.S. Justice Department investigation found widespread discriminatory practices within the Police Department.

The complaint names De Sousa and Rodney Hill, the former head of the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which includes internal affairs, as defendants.

“The repeated dissemination of these false claims had irreparably damaged Mr. Cassella’s reputation as a law enforcement officer,” the complaint said. “The nature of the alleged sustained actions against Mr. Cassella are particularly inflammatory in light of the findings of the DOJ.”

Cassella is asking for $75,000 in damages. He declined through his attorney to comment.

De Sousa’s tenure as police commissioner ended abruptly last May when he resigned after federal prosecutors charged him with failing to file tax returns. In December, he pleaded guilty to three counts of failing to file federal tax returns. The Police Department announced Hill’s retirement last March.

A hearing on Cassella’s complaint, which was filed in October, is scheduled for the end of the month.

Attorneys for De Sousa and Hill have filed motions to dismiss the case.

De Sousa’s attorney wrote that Cassella’s theory had “no merit whatsoever.”

“The facts presented by plaintiff do not [show] evidence of any malicious conduct by Mr. De Sousa,” wrote attorney Neil Duke, adding that comments attributed to De Sousa were “rather innocuous and cannot serve as the basis of a defamation lawsuit.”

Rodney Hill’s attorney, John Augustine Bourgeois, wrote in filings that there was no evidence that his client leaked or allowed the leak.

“The crux of this case is that someone leaked the memorandum,” Bourgeois wrote. “Plaintiff has not alleged any evidence showing any negligent act or omission by Mr. Hill or showing how such an act or omission caused plaintiff’s injury.”

Duke and Bourgeois did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The complaint does not identify the source of the leaked information.

Cassella had retired from the Police Department as a major in 2007 and went into the private security sector, working most recently as the director of security at the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, before De Sousa named him deputy commissioner of operations last February.

The same day, local television news station Fox 45 published a purported internal memo, which said the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had a complaint against Cassella for alleged racial discrimination that had been sustained in 2006. It also said that what appeared to be an internal disciplinary complaint, for not properly filing a report, was sustained. The memo had been addressed to De Sousa and Hill.

Two days after Cassella’s appointment, De Sousa said the memo was false, that there was never a sustained discrimination claim, and called the memo’s release “completely unfortunate and unfair.”

Cassella’s complaint alleges he lost the job because of the memo.

“In reality, the withdrawal of Mr. Cassella’s offer to join the BPD as Deputy Commissioner was never discussed with Mr. Cassella, and the decision was not ‘mutual.’ This statement is false,” the complaint said.

The complaint also alleges that media coverage appeared to show Cassella lost the job because of the false allegations.

“Although more recent media coverage states that the allegations were eventually determined to be incorrect, media coverage continues to insinuate that Mr. Cassella’s alleged disciplinary history was the cause for the withdrawal of this appointment,” the complaint said.

Personnel records in Maryland are shielded from public view. De Sousa said the department was investigating the leak, and named Andre Bonaparte, who was named deputy commissioner of support services, to take over Cassella’s job.

Cassella’s attorney, Mary McNamara Koch, said Tuesday that her client lost a job and his reputation was hurt because of the memo.

“It created the appearance and impression to the public that there was something in that memo, that Tom Cassella was no longer an appropriate candidate for the job,” she said.

The damage was also unnecessary, she said, had the Police Department actually looked into its own files.

“There was never any real resolution. The police department never came out and made a firm statement,” she said. Rather, this report came out and then it was reported that he can no longer have the job, she said.

“It leaves the impression that this man must have done something really wrong,” she said.

Cassella is employed, but his attorney declined to say where. Koch said he was “very interested in restarting his career” at the department, where he rose through the ranks. He had a crime plan put together, she said.

“He was basically blindsided by something that wasn’t true,” she said.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/janders5

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