Chief, officials say Biloxi suit not revealed, not a factor

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 28, 2002

[06/28/02]Vicksburg’s elected officials say they did not know about a federal lawsuit pending against Tommy Moffett when they hired him last fall to be Vicksburg’s police chief and that they don’t care since he continues to do an excellent job here.

Moffett, 52, who started his duties here Oct. 3, and the City of Biloxi, by whom he was employed from 1973 until his retirement days before coming to Vicksburg, were sued in March 2001 by a Biloxi woman who says Moffett violated her civil rights and the city failed to prevent or stop him from doing so. She claimed Moffett used his authority as director of police to harass her, intentionally inflicting emotional distress, and to defame her character.

Evelyn Mason is suing for damages of $1.35 million, including $1 million in punitive damages.

Moffett and Biloxi have denied the accusations, beginning with an April 17, 2001, answer filed in the case. They have also filed a motion to have the suit dismissed, which is pending with U.S. District Judge David Bramlette in the Southern Division of Southern District of Mississippi court in Biloxi, a spokesman in Bramlette’s office said.

A pretrial conference involving the parties’ lawyers was held June 17 in Biloxi, and such conferences typically take place about a month before the dates for which trials are anticipated to be set, the spokesman said. A trial date was expected to be set by as early as Monday, another spokesman in Bramlette’s office said this morning.

Vicksburg Mayor Laurence Leyens said Wednesday he did not know that the suit was pending when his administration, three months old when Moffett took office, hired the current chief at a rate of $80,000 a year, $18,000 more than he was making in Biloxi and $24,000 more than former Police Chief Mitchell Dent was being paid. He also said Moffett had not asked for time off to deal with the case if it goes to trial.

Leyens said the city continues to receive positive comments on Moffett’s work, including an announcement two weeks ago that no traffic tickets would be “fixed” without the deputy chief’s signature.

“We’re extremely satisfied with him as a chief of police,” Leyens said.

Aldermen Sid Beauman and Gertrude Young also said they did not know about the lawsuit when Moffett was hired.

Asked if knowing about the suit would have made a difference to her, Young said, “No, it would not, because we’ve all gone through lawsuits. I trust Chief Moffett. He’s done an excellent job while he’s here. I support him wholeheartedly.”

In Mason’s March complaint, she says she rejected Moffett’s “sexual advances” toward her and he then began using his authority to harass her, beginning in September 1998. She claims her son was arrested for alleged drug involvement, her Jeep was confiscated for a year and items were removed from her mother’s home, and that Moffett continued to harass her through at least July 16, 1999.

Mason also claims the city had a “widespread and pervasive policy” of deliberately indifferent failure to instruct, supervise, control or discipline Moffett to keep him from denying her constitutional rights.

“The defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment because we think that there is no merit to the plaintiffs’ claims,” said Tere R. Steel of Biloxi, an attorney in the case for the City of Biloxi and Moffett.

“The lawsuit is baseless and without merit,” Moffett said. “I have a job to do here in the City of Vicksburg. No matter where I am, I will have enemies, but they’re not going to prevent me from doing my job.”

On April 24, Mason responded to the motion to have the case dismissed, saying the defendants should not be entitled to summary judgment. Mason’s attorney, La Quetta M. Golden of Biloxi confirmed the dates of the filings, but declined to comment, saying the court documents speak for themselves.

Leyens has repeatedly identified building trust in the police department as a priority of his administration. Policies are in place to make the department’s approximately 100 officers the state’s best trained and highest paid.