Nicoletti, 4 other former SCI Pittsburgh guards sue over handling of F Block accusations
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Five of the corrections officers fired following abuse allegations by inmates at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh's F Block sued the six Pennsylvania Department of Corrections officials today.
Harry Nicoletti, Tory Kelly, Bruce Lowther, Brian Olinger and John Michaels claim in the lawsuit that the Department of Corrections officials violated their constitutional due process rights and demand payment for economic damages, anxiety and illnesses they've suffered since they were escorted from the prison last year.
Mr. Olinger, who faced criminal charges, later dismissed, stemming from the inmate allegations, also sued for malicious prosecution.
"They have unblemished records as corrections officers," their attorney, Lawrence Fisher, said. "They've had really good careers. Most of them have gone unsung and unnoticed. That doesn't mean they can be thrown out as dirt."
The defendants are department secretary John Wetzel, deputy secretary Shirley Moore Smeal, investigators Gary Hiler and Michael Kondas, and former SCI Pittsburgh superintendents Melvin Lockett and Daniel Burns.
A Department of Corrections spokeswoman could not be immediately reached for comment.
The case is the latest fallout from a departmental Office of Special Investigations and Intelligence investigation in 2010 and 2011, which concluded that inmates -- and particularly those convicted of sex crimes -- were systematically and sometimes brutally hazed on F Block.
Mr. Nicoletti, 60, of Coraopolis, faces trial Jan. 8 on 89 criminal counts stemming from inmate allegations that he abused them.
Mr. Kelly, 41, of Aliquippa, is slated for trial Dec. 17 on 14 inmate abuse counts and five counts related to alleged intimidation of a witness.
Mr. Lowther, 35, faces one count each of official oppression and conspiracy, and could go to trial Jan. 28.
"Because these individuals are so entirely confident of their innocence in the criminal matters that have been so maliciously pursued against them, they see this civil litigation as only supporting their innocence claim," Mr. Fisher said.
Mr. Michaels, a former sergeant, has never been charged with a crime but was fired anyway.
Mr. Fisher's lawsuit said that the Department of Corrections suspended the five starting at various times during 2011 without explanation.
The unstated reason for the suspensions, according to the complaint, was an investigation that started with the account of one "convicted child sex abuser" who claimed he was propositioned by an officer on F Block.
The department officials "stoked" that claim, causing it to "morph uncontrollably into a baseless conspiracy" against F Block officers, Mr. Fisher wrote.
Other inmates, he wrote, told investigators "radically inconsistent stories" to "get back at" officers they didn't like.
Mr. Fisher, who has in the past represented inmates in lawsuits against corrections officers, said the department should know that prisoners sometimes tell tales.
"And yet here you have them swallowing whole the incongruent and incredible allegations of convicted felons," he said.
The eventual filing of criminal charges provided the officers with "a limited, albeit constitutionally inadequate, opportunity to defend themselves in their community, but not to their employer," according to the complaint.
An arbitrator overturned the department's indefinite suspensions of seven F Block officers, including four of the plaintiffs in today's lawsuit, finding that they were never given an opportunity to defend themselves.
They were later fired anyway after payment of minimal back wages. The Commonwealth Court also reversed the arbitrator's ruling on a technicality.
The lawsuit builds on the arbitrator's finding and seeks to expand the damages claim.
Some of the five officers have taken lower-paying jobs, plunged into debt and cashed out pension funds, it said.
The Department of Corrections is also defending against around a half dozen lawsuits by inmates who said they were abused on F Block. It won dismissal of a complaint by three top prison managers who were dismissed in 2011.
First Published November 26, 2012 9:53 am