Under Fire

She says he ordered her to sue a local resident, and then fired her. He says that's a lie. Being Key Biscayne police chief isn't the hassle-free job Michael Flaherty thought it would be.

Rojas v. Curtin was filed in April 1999. "He actually backed off once he got served," Rojas says. "He stopped going to meetings. The letters pretty much stopped. Occasionally I would see the chief, and he would ask how the lawsuit was going, and I'd tell him the lawyer is handling it; I don't want to know anything."

She continues, "[Flaherty] told me at one point in time something to the effect of: “It would be nice to take his house from him. It's worth a lot.' And I told the chief I don't want his house. I just want him to leave me alone."

Curtin, meanwhile, countersued not only Rojas but also Chief Flaherty and the Village of Key Biscayne, alleging racketeering. Since then he says he's received numerous threatening e-mails, including two sent in January that read, "Kill yourself, loser" and "Bang," plus others that make references to the lawsuit.

In December 1999, a lawsuit filed against Rojas and the FHP by a woman arrested for driving under the influence in 1995 came to trial. The woman claimed Rojas improperly administered the roadside drug test, and she sued for false arrest. A jury found the troopers liable. Rojas was devastated. "I thought my career in law enforcement was over," she says.

Curtin found out about the lawsuit and made sure the press did too. In an article that appeared in the Islander News, the attorney who sued Rojas cited an FHP internal-affairs complaint that revealed she had once accepted an award for making 100 DUI arrests when she hadn't made that many. (Rojas denies this claim.) Flaherty defended his officer in the article. "This was something done supposedly ten years ago, and the Florida Highway Patrol took no action," Flaherty is quoted as saying. "When I talked to her commanding officers and the seven officers who recommended her for hiring, they said this was a bunch of junk."

But it was all too much for Rojas. She told the chief she was going to drop the lawsuit against Curtin. By this time a circuit court judge had removed Flaherty and the village as defendants in Curtin's countersuit. Agnetti speculates that because the chief no longer had to worry about keeping a united front with Rojas against Curtin, the department was free to fire her. To have done so earlier could have been seen as a concession that she was a troubled officer. "Once the Key [Biscayne Police Department] obtained a dismissal in the Curtin case, they abandoned Jackie," Agnetti says. "I think they used her."

Immediately, Rojas claims, she began receiving bad shift assignments. Eventually Key Biscayne Deputy Police Chief Cathy McElhaney called Rojas in for a meeting. According to a memo Rojas wrote to the chief recounting the meeting, McElhaney wanted Rojas to resign, saying the department believed the officer had lied on her job application. Otherwise, McElhaney reportedly threatened, the department would launch an internal-affairs investigation and fire her. Rojas refused to resign.

McElhaney did conduct an internal-affairs investigation and promptly fired Rojas. But if there were a motive beyond the one given to fire her, even she's not sure what it is. "Maybe they do believe I lied," Rojas says. Or maybe the chief is upset with her for dropping the Curtin lawsuit.

On the Key Biscayne Police Department's application form, under the section titled "Arrest, Detention, and Litigation," this question is asked: "Have you ever been the subject of a police investigation? If yes, give details including police department and date." Believing the question referred to criminal investigations, not internal-affairs investigations, Rojas answered no.

This is what the department cited when they fired her: "Officer Rojas misrepresented, omitted, or falsified her employment application, and during subsequent interviews with the Chief of Police, failed to inform him of her prior work history." McElhaney noted that Rojas never mentioned her internal-affairs history with the FHP. She was fired December 18, 2000. Rojas then hired attorney Teri Guttman Valdes and sued for illegal termination. After some digging Valdes found that several other officers had made the same mistake on their applications. Two officers actually had been criminally charged in the past, one for impersonating a police officer, another for driving while intoxicated. (Both charges eventually were dismissed.) Other officers with sustained internal-affairs complaints from previous jobs answered "no."

"It's a bad question," attorney Valdes says. "All the other officers who had prior law-enforcement experience and prior internal-affairs investigations omitted them from the application. They were right not to answer “yes.'"

McElhaney also accused Rojas of not telling the department about the DUI award fiasco. Rojas says she not only told the chief, she pointed out his comments in the Islander News defending her in that matter. Flaherty claimed he was misquoted.

As part of her probe, McElhaney received a tip that Rojas slept on duty. Surprisingly Rojas, who worked the midnight to 7:00 a.m. shift in 1999 and 2000, didn't deny it. "I told them it was true but that we had permission from the lieutenant," she asserts. "He said, “I don't mind if you lay down.' He said he'd rather have us come to the station and lay down than get into an accident because we were tired."

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