Cop Won Fight to Clear His Name

"The mayor should take this as a message," says Mark Balduzzi, a former Syracuse police officer.

Published April 15, 1998, in The Post-Standard.


Mark Balduzzi has taken few chances in the past five years.

His professional life in that span is contained in three four-foot-long plastic tubs in the basement of his home in DeWitt. Tapes of conversations. Memos from his bosses and the internal affairs division of the Syracuse Police Department. Personal logs that he filled out daily, no matter how mundane the day's activity.

Pick any date, and Balduzzi can probably tell you whom he worked with and talked with and what they said. He can describe the weather on that day.

That, he says, is what happens to someone who's accused of being a liar, a nut and a bad cop.

A federal court jury verdict in February seemed to confirm that Balduzzi was none of those. It was his supervisors who deserved rebuking, the jury ruled.

Jurors awarded Balduzzi $816,526 because Syracuse police administrators violated his constitutional right to free speech by harassing him with unwarranted allegations of misconduct, then firing him from his job as police sergeant for testifying before the Citizen Review Board in 1995.

In his CRB testimony, Balduzzi accused his commanders, Capt. Robert Featherstone and Lt. Mark McArdle, of toning down a sex- related complaint against a retired city police officer. In 1996, an Onondaga County grand jury cleared the commanders of any wrongdoing.

Police administrators said Balduzzi wasn't fired over his CRB testimony, but for a remark he made to city laborer David Silvernail Feb. 28, 1996, in the police garage.

Silvernail had asked Balduzzi why he was included on a list of about 200 potential witnesses for Balduzzi's trial.

"If I told you, I would have to kill you," Balduzzi told him.

Some of the eight jurors who awarded the verdict to Balduzzi shook their heads in disbelief when Silvernail testified.

"That's the best they could come up with?" juror Steven Leyden asked in a recent interview. "We thought that was a joke. Everyone uses that expression."

Sending a message?

Balduzzi, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers, now says it was a blessing from God that his bosses chose to fire him over a comment that everyone knows is made in jest every day.

"They were just looking for a reason to get rid of the guy," Leyden said.

City officials ought to use the verdict as a call to action, Balduzzi said.

"The mayor should take this as a message," Balduzzi said. "If this were a business, and the CEO was charged and convicted of violating an employee's constitutional rights, he'd be out the door. That's tantamount to committing a crime."

He suggested Mayor Roy Bernardi remove Tim Foody as police chief and take equally strong action against the other two officers against whom the verdict was issued: Deputy Chief Daniel Boyle and Lt. Michael Kerwin.

"Instead of sticking your head in the sand, deal with it," Balduzzi said.

Bernardi referred questions on the case to the city's recently hired private lawyer, David Garber.

"We're not certain at this point whether the verdict is legitimate, so no one can say it sends a message to anybody," Garber said. The city is paying three other private lawyers to represent the three police officials in legal actions over the verdict. Garber's law firm has asked U.S. District Judge Howard Munson to overturn the verdict on the grounds that the city and the officers should have had separate lawyers during the trial.

Neither Foody, Boyle nor Kerwin would comment on the case, according to department spokeswoman Sgt. Therese Lore.

'Defense ... did nothing'

Leyden, the only juror who agreed to talk about the verdict, said the decision wasn't based on strong feelings among jurors that Balduzzi was right. It was more a case of having no other choice, Leyden said.

After Balduzzi's lawyer Mark David Blum called a stream of witnesses and presented documentary evidence to support his case, the jurors assumed they would hear the city's proof that its firing of Balduzzi was justified, Leyden said. They expected to hear from the police officer, Todd Hage, whom Balduzzi said had told him about supervisors trying to cover up a crime. They expected to see job performance evaluations showing Balduzzi to be a bad cop.

They neither saw nor heard any of that.

"When the defense rested," Leyden said, "we went back to the jury room and said, "What's going on? What's happening here? Did we miss something?' That's how shocking it was."

Blum said it was apparent that the city did not take the lawsuit seriously.

Corporation Counsel Joseph Lamendola declined to comment on the trial or the verdict. His assistant, Joseph Pacheco, represented the city and the three police officials in the trial.

"The city of Syracuse didn't put in any case at all," Leyden said. "We expected witnesses to say "Here's someone who overheard the conversation with Hage, and he didn't say that.' And where was Hage? The defense basically did nothing but sit back and do nothing."

With that caveat, Leyden said the verdict ought to send one of two messages: At worst, that it appears city police covered up wrongdoing by a retired cop. At best, that police officers should be free to say anything in front of the CRB without fear of retribution.

The jurors were bothered by the fact that they only heard in a general way from Foody, Boyle and Kerwin that they believed Balduzzi to be a bad cop, Leyden said. If that was true, how did he get promoted to sergeant, they wondered, according to Leyden. The jurors realized that in any police agency, the brass is likely to turn up the heat on any officer who breaks rank, Leyden said.

'Just tell the truth'

Balduzzi has always been outspoken, according to those close to him. Ever since he was head of a committee with the Police Benevolent Association in the mid-1980s, he's been unafraid to object when he thought something was wrong - even if it meant setting his bosses against him, according to his brother Mike, acting police chief in Solvay.

While the city appeals the verdict, Balduzzi makes about $386 a day in interest. He's making plans for a new life, possibly as a stock broker or financial analyst, or as a business manager for a nonprofit agency such as the Salvation Army. With the verdict award in his bank, he could afford to take a lower paying job, he said.

Back to the MarkBlum Report

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