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Serious allegations, but a dearth of details

Published August 26. 2011 4:00AM   Updated August 26. 2011 12:47PM

We greet with regret the impending departure of New London Police Chief Margaret Ackley after a brief stint of less than three years. More disturbing is that she prepares to leave in the midst of a brewing political storm after leveling accusations of misconduct against a mayoral candidate and becoming embroiled in a controversy over secret deals.

The controversy centers on a legal document, negotiated over several months and signed by Chief Ackley and interim City Manager Denise Rose in April. Its intent was to keep Chief Ackley employed through January, allowing a transition to the new mayoral government after November's election, rather than stepping down at the end of this month when she became eligible.

Chief Ackley sought and received a confidentiality agreement, not wanting word of her impending departure and her compensation package to undermine her authority in a department already roiled by the politics surrounding the election of the city's first strong mayor under a charter change. The city administration should never have agreed to the oxymoronic concept of a confidential public document. Appropriately, it became public Wednesday.

If some fiscal give and take over the chief's departure and poor decision-making about inking clandestine deals were the only topics, this controversy would likely be over quickly. But Chief Ackley's subsequent comments propelled this to a far more serious matter. The frustrated police chief voiced a desire "to retire as soon as possible," an option not allowed, incidentally, by the agreement, still not approved by the council.

More ominously the council learned the chief believes she has a claim against the city for alleged improper conduct by Councilor Michael Buscetto III. She demands a settlement and threatens to institute a legal action if it's not forthcoming.

That hand grenade lands as the Sept. 13 Democratic primary for mayor fast approaches. Mr. Buscetto, the nominee of the town committee, faces a challenge from self-labeled reform candidate Daryl Finizio.

Short stint

There has been much to like about Chief Ackley's brief leadership of the city police force. She has been a highly visible police leader, often attending neighborhood and civic events and in so doing giving the message that the police were part of the community and not only there in times of trouble.

Internally, the new chief mandated tighter scheduling, reducing overtime in the process. She revamped the citizen complaint procedure to give allegations of inappropriate police conduct a thorough review in an open process. At her urging, the council restored the position of deputy chief and with it greater scrutiny of the rank and file. Chief Ackley was a stickler for professionalism.

Some of these steps did not prove popular with the union, which represents everyone except the chief and deputy. Chief Ackley probably could have done a better job in dealing with the complex internal politics and personalities found in this, and most every, police department. Her reluctance to deal directly with the news media, insisting on communication by email, did her no good.

But Chief Ackley always impressed us as a person of high ethical standards and integrity.

That is why we must take her startling accusations leveled at Mr. Buscetto with seriousness. Chief Ackley does not strike us as an individual who would invent allegations from whole cloth. We are convinced that she does believe that Mr. Buscetto, who is endorsed by the police union and who with four other councilors favored another applicant for the job over Chief Ackley, has meddled into the affairs of her department and worked to undermine her authority.

"Over the last two years I have consistently informed various city officials and employees of unethical conduct, discriminatory treatment and improper and systematic interference in the police department by councilor Buscetto - threats, favoritism, undue influence and improprieties. The city has done nothing to address this conduct. They have chosen to tolerate his misconduct and in so doing they asked me to tolerate this conduct," the chief told a special meeting of the council Wednesday.

Few details

Yet the chief and her attorney, Shelley L. Graves, were short on details. Ms. Graves declined comment when we asked whether her client had hard evidence to back up the allegations.

Mr. Buscetto insists he stepped over no lines. He communicates with many city employees, but said he does not undermine those in charge. The two-term councilor makes the point that Chief Ackley filed no formal complaints with the city before springing her allegations at the special meeting.

And he said he can't help wondering about the timing and its political implications.

"They negotiated that deal in January, inked that deal in April, and then they come after Buscetto in August," he told us.

The questions then, were legal and ethical lines crossed? The agreement signed by Chief Ackley and the city manager leaves the city legally exposed. In it the city agrees "its officials … agree not to communicate … any false or derogatory information about (Chief Ackley)." Whoever leaked information about it - Chief Ackley accuses Mr. Buscetto - breached its dubious confidentiality provision.

Is Mr. Buscetto simply an over exuberant councilor whose concerns about how members of the police were being treated endeared him to the union but alienated the chief? Or did he, in fact, try to engineer her downfall?

The burden, we believe, is on the accuser. The council has authorized hiring a private investigator to look into her allegations, but those results will likely not be available until after the November election, little help to voters assessing this situation.

Even the exact nature of the allegations remains closed. The city refuses to release the claims Chief Ackley filed with the city in three letters. The Day considers them to be public documents and will challenge the city's attempt to withhold the information.

Mr. Buscetto has made himself clear. He says he has done nothing improper and feels he is the victim of a hatchet job. The chief, having raised such serious charges, needs to provide some proof.

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