Deputy Salt Lake City Attorney Bruce Baird has sued his boss, Roger Cutler, saying Cutler violated his right to free speech.
Baird believes Cutler's discipline of him over remarks he made on a TV talk show and the way Baird treated office visitors violates the First Amendment.Stan Preston, attorney for Cutler, defended Cutler's reprimand of Baird.
"I think the city has acted in a very restrained fashion given Mr. Baird's conduct. We're not talking about termination. The only discipline he received was a written warning."
Baird sued Cutler in U.S. District Court Wednesday, asking a federal judge to order that Cutler's April reprimand of Baird be expunged from Baird's personnel file. Baird also wants unspecified compensatory and punitive damages as well as attorney's fees.
Cutler and Baird clashed after Baird appeared on a local TV talk show last November and attacked Ross Perot. Baird called Perot a "lunative and a fascist" and said that someone should shoot him.
Baird was not appearing on the show in his official capacity. But a local gossip column reported on Baird's remarks and linked them to the city's litigation over a new, stringent handgun law.
Baird claims all subsequent problems between him and Cutler stem from those remarks, which are protected by the First Amendment, the suit says.
When Perot supporters went to Baird's office to complain about the remarks, Baird refused to meet with them.
Reports of that discussion vary sharply. Cutler told Baird in a disciplinary letter that he was so rude to the supporters as to effectively throw them out of the office.
Baird claimed in his suit that he was not rude. He simply told the supporters that it would not be appropriate for him to discuss his personal opinions at work.
In December, Cutler told Baird that he would investigate Baird's conduct. In a seven-page letter, Cutler talked about Baird's "insatiable need for recognition and propensity to make extreme, abrasive comments for their shock or entertainment value."
That need has been a problem for the office in the past, Cutler told Baird in the letter. But Baird's regular appearances on a talk show had not been a problem until the gossip columnists linked the remarks to the city's handgun law, the letter says.
Cutler said Baird's public remarks have compromised Baird's ability to assist in a local gun shop's lawsuit against the city over the new handgun law. Cutler removed Baird from the case.
He also chided Baird for his later rudeness to Perot supporters.
In his suit, Baird says he provided Cutler with two affadavits about the incident which show that Baird was not rude.
But in a letter to Baird, Cutler cited the incident as "the latest in a long string of matters where your statements, rudeness or perceived arrogance has prejudiced city policy objectives," the letter says.
Cutler cited other incidents: Baird had called members of Salt Lake Association of Community Councils "slacko-wackos" at a public meeting, causing strained relations with the mayor's office. He has also referred to city employees as "Nazis" and "idiots," Cutler said in the letter.
Baird's behavior has required Cutler to modify his assignments, the letter says.
Cutler went on to cite Baird's poor work, including embarrassing mistakes in the gun-control ordinance, which Baird drafted. "Your recent work product is not up to your capabilities."
Cutler notified Baird in that letter of a formal investigation of Baird's comments on the TV show as well as a review of his treatment of colleagues and office visitors.
The investigation resulted in an April disciplinary letter that was placed in Baird's personnel file. The letter focuses on Baird's treatment of the Perot supporters and his remarks on the TV show.
In his suit, Baird said the discipline was chiefly prompted by his remarks on the TV show. Cutler told Baird that he was being placed on probation because of those remarks before a formal investigation was conducted, the suit says.
"This is not about the First Amendment," Preston countered. Cutler's discipline of Baird was sparked by a variety of problems with Baird's work and conduct, he said. "Given Mr. Baird's conduct, the city has a right to give this written warning."
But Cutler's repeated references to Baird's rudeness "in light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is a pretextual attempt to cover up Cutler's improper and unconstitutional actions based on Baird's protected speech," the suit says.
Not only did Cutler ignore Baird's affadavits defending his conduct, but his deputy tried to have them changed. "Chief Deputy Attorney Steven Allred attempted to have one of the two city witnesses sign a second affidavit contradicting or changing his story," the suit says.
Work in the city attorney's office should progress normally despite the suit, said Elizabeth Dunning, attorney for Baird.