Missouri police board member resigns after sergeant wins $20M verdict

Associated Press

Clayton, Mo. – The chairman of a St. Louis County police board has resigned and another board member said she is being replaced after a jury found that a sergeant was discriminated against because he’s gay and recommended that he be awarded nearly $20 million.

County Executive Sam Page said Monday in a letter announcing board chairman Roland Corvington’s resignation that the county has “not always done a good job” of addressing the unique challenges in the workplace for women, people of color and LGBT people. Board member Laurie Westfall said Page also told her she’s being replaced, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported.

St. Louis County police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber returns from lunch break to the St. Louis County courthouse on the third day of his discrimination case against the county on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Clayton, Mo. Wildhaber, an Army veteran and a St. Louis County cop, alleges in a lawsuit filed in 2017 that he was passed over for promotion because he is gay and then retaliated against when he sought legal redress.

The departures come days after a jury ruled in favor of Sgt. Keith Wildhaber in his discrimination lawsuit. He testified that former St. Louis County Police Board of Commissioners member John Saracino told him 2014 that he would need to “tone down his gayness” to secure a promotion to lieutenant. Saracino has denied that he made the comment.

The police board held an emergency meeting Tuesday and unanimously voted to initiate an independent review of the department. A statement announcing the probe Tuesday night said it would include reviewing “policies and procedures, the decision-making and promotions processes, and inclusion within the Department.”

The board, not the county executive, holds the power to fire a police chief.

Page has not said how many members of the five-member commission he planned to replace or whether he wants the board to fire Chief Jon Belmar, who has led the department since early 2014. By Friday, all five members of the police board will be serving on expired terms. Belmar didn’t respond to a voicemail and text seeking comment, and the three remaining board members either declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests to do so.

Corvington, a retired special agent in charge of the FBI in St. Louis who works as director of global security for Edward Jones, said the trial was “embarrassing.” The case included testimony about Wildhaber being passed over 23 times for promotion and being transferred in retaliation for filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Belmar himself testified that Wildhaber’s lawsuit was a factor in his not being promoted.

“I sincerely believe the jury’s decision to award this verdict was a wake-up call to the department and its leadership that they have to be mindful of what is said and how it’s said and to be mindful of their conduct when engaging with their subordinates, their peers and the public for that matter,” said Corvington, who had served on the board since 2012.

Westfall, meanwhile, defended the board, saying that had it known about Wildhaber’s claims, it could have “defused” the situation. She also defended Belmar, saying she has “great respect for the chief.”

In his letter to county employees, Page also said diversity was a priority for him. Page said he met on Monday with LGBT leaders and that his staff met with the Anti-Defamation League to start a training program.

County officials have not announced whether they will appeal the jury’s decision.