Supreme Court sides with Fairbanks firefighters

Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The Alaska Supreme Court has sided with two Fairbanks firefighters who sued the city after resigning the jobs in 1995 because they claimed working conditions were intolerable.

The City of Fairbanks had appealed a jury's 1997 verdict that the city's police chief had threatened Jim Rice and Lee Despain. The men were awarded a combined $496,000.

''Rice and Despain have been vindicated in their beliefs,'' said Ed Niewohner, attorney for Rice. ''They were correct in that their constitutional right to free speech was infringed on.''

In 1994, Rice and Despain reported to the city that then-Public Safety Director Mike Pulice was overstating his compensatory time.

Pulice afterward called Fairbanks attorney Brett Wood, who had previously represented Rice and Despain. According to Wood, Pulice threatened to retaliate against the two firefighters. The fire department was part of the public safety department.

Wood informed then-city manager Pat Cole, who refused Wood's request to put Rice and Despain on paid administrative leave until the issue was resolved.

The Supreme Court cited other circumstances that created animosity between the two firefighters and the city: the city and Pulice allegedly tried to weaken the firefighters union, Rice and Despain began spying on Pulice, and Rice reported to the city that Pulice had had an extramarital affair.

Rice and Despain resigned, claiming work conditions were unbearable and that they feared retaliation. A former police officer testified that he told the firefighters to take Pulice's threat seriously. Pulice resigned in 1998.

''He had the evidence key,'' Mike Nielsen said in an excerpt cited by the Supreme Court. ''If he wanted to go down and get evidence, he could drop a baggy of marijuana in the back of their car and call an anonymous tip.''

The Supreme Court said in its unanimous ruling that ''fear created by an actual threat of framing and bolstered by evidence of means and will is sufficient to support the jury's verdict.''



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