A federal judge has a warning for government employees in Utah: Your boss can discipline you for off-duty conduct if that conduct interferes with government business.
U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene ruled that Salt Lake City attorney Roger Cutler acted properly when he put assistant city attorney Bruce Baird on probation for hostile remarks Baird made about Ross Perot on TV and his rudeness to Perot supporters.Greene dismissed all but one of Baird's claims against the city, handing Baird a sweeping defeat on his own lawsuit. But Greene also ruled that the city could not fire Baird for filing the suit. In its counterclaim, the city asked Greene to rule that Baird's lawsuit was grounds for dismissal because Baird allegedly violated legal ethics by suing his own client.
Greene ruled that Baird's lawsuit alone does not make termination "immediately necessary."
Greene's ruling was "an obvious, major victory for the city and a real vindication for the approach they've taken with Mr. Baird," said Stan Preston, attorney for Cutler.
"I think Judge Greene was mistaken" and Baird will appeal most of the ruling, said Elizabeth Dunning, Baird's attorney.
Greene ruled that Baird's remark about Perot arguably affected the city's ability to win a challenge to its gun-control law. In November 1993, Baird appeared on a KTVX political show called "The Vanocur Group." Baird appeared in his private capacity as a political commentator.
At the end of the show, he remarked, "(Perot) believes everyone is trying to assassinate him; he's still alive - too bad!"
At the time, Baird was a senior assistant attorney responsible for the city's gun-control initiative.
Several months later, a local gossip column linked those remarks to the city's gun-control efforts.
Baird's comments, made while he held an important position with the city, involved matters of public concern and potentially affected government efficiency, Greene ruled. That means the public's interest in his remarks outweighs Baird's personal right to free speech, the judge concluded.
Dismissed were claims Baird was really being disciplined for pointing out an accounting error in violation of the state's whistleblower law, that he was denied due process in the manner he was disciplined and that the city should have hired an objective panel to discipline him.
Greene left only one issue for trial: whether the city retaliated against Baird for filing his lawsuit.