The former second-in-command of the Gautier Police Department is alleging corruption within the Department, and the city, in a federal lawsuit that invites any residents of Gautier and Jackson County to join the claim to recover “misspent” tax dollars.
Jerry Cooksey, the former police captain, filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Gulfport. The named defendants include the city and Police Chief Dante Elbin, both individually and in his official capacity as chief.
While serving as the second-in-command to the chief, Cooksey “learned of criminal acts being committed within the department, of which the chief was aware,” the lawsuit says.
Among the alleged crimes are fraud, embezzlement and tax evasion. After uncovering the “criminal acts,” Cooksey brought the information to Elbin, upon which Elbin responded “he would be able to explain it away and that no one would question his reasons,” the suit says.
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The lawsuit alleges violations of Cooksey’s constitutional rights to due process and freedom of speech, and is intended to bring action on behalf of the taxpayers of Gautier and Jackson County, inviting “any other citizens to join suit against the Defendants for the recovery of tax amounts misspent and misappropriated by the City and its administration.”
Cooksey alleges the chief was aware of “time sheet fraud,” in which employees were fabricating time cards to receive pay for days and hours not worked. Employees even admitted to the fraud, but no action was taken against them, allowing them to continue to defraud the city and its taxpayers, according to the petition.
He also accuses Elbin of unlawfully using DUI grant money to pay wages to employees not involved in DUI enforcement. Upon discovering this, the lawsuit says, Cooksey refused to sign off on any further time cards that “Elbin directed to be fraudulently paid from the grant money.”
Cooksey also complained of the city’s use of reserve funds to pay employees under the table to avoid paying state and federal taxes, “constituting tax evasion and criminal violations of state law,” the suit says.
City Manager Paula Yancey released a statement, sent to the Sun Herald through the city’s attorney, Josh Danos.
“I have recently become aware that former Gautier police officer, Jerry Cooksey, has filed a federal action against the City,” Yancey said in a statement. “It is our policy to refrain from commenting on the substance of ongoing litigation.
“However, after a brief review of the filing, it is clear that many of the allegations are completely and demonstrably fabricated. If and when the City is served with the lawsuit, we will move forward in vigorously defending these false claims, and I trust that justice will prevail.”
According to the lawsuit, a number of police officers “transferred and left the department because of the criminal acts being covered up by the chief and others within the City.”
While the chief was on vacation in summer 2015, Cooksey brought his findings to then–City Manager Samantha Abell, but Abell “became irritated and accused Cooksey of lying about the accusations,” the suit claims.
Abell, however, did at Cooksey’s request conduct about 15 interviews with officers, the suit says. After the interviews, several of those officers “confided in Cooksey that Abell did not seem interested in the truth, but rather in discrediting Cooksey’s allegations,” the suit claims.
Cooksey claims Abell eventually wrote a report that contained no mention of the criminal allegations and instead claimed Cooksey was trying to undermine the chief. Cooksey later told Abell in private it appeared she was trying to “cover up” the matters for the chief, to which Abell replied Cooksey should “just leave the department,” the petition claims.
In April, Abell announced plans to resign as city manager. She had not secured another job at the time and offered the City Council a two-month transition plan to train her replacement. Just days later, however, the council declined her transition plan and took her off the job immediately.
In September, Cooksey was placed on leave and questioned by new City Manager Paula Yancey and City Attorney Josh Danos about Abell’s prior report regarding Cooksey. Shortly thereafter, he was given the option to resign in lieu of termination, his petition says.
He initially refused to resign, stating his desire to appeal to the Civil Service Commission. The city then “concocted false, grossly misleading and fabricated grounds for Cooksey’s termination, saying that Cooksey had sexually harassed a male employee,” the suit says.
In desperate need of a job, Cooksey struck a deal with the city and agreed to withdraw his Civil Service Commission appeal and resign if the city would approve his transfer to the Moss Point Police Department. After he resigned, however, the city failed to uphold its part of the deal, Cooksey claims.
The deal was “never meant to take place and was wholly intended to falsely induce and coerce Cooksey into signing a release of his employment claims against the city,” the suit says.
Cooksey is seeking compensatory damages for the loss of his job, loss of reputation, emotional distress, humiliation, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life and other non-financial losses. He is also demanding the defendants repay the taxpayers of Gautier and Jackson County “for all funds knowingly misspent and misappropriated” by the defendants.
Cooksey is being represented by Hattiesburg attorney Daniel Wade.
When asked why Cooksey never brought his criminal findings to state or federal authorities, Wade said his client is still contemplating whether to do so.
When Cooksey brought the findings to human resources officer Jason Pugh, Cooksey was advised to “keep quiet” and work until he retired, the suit claims.
‘“You know, you’re only a year or two away from retirement, so why rock the boat?’” Wade said, paraphrasing statements Pugh made to Cooksey.
The police chief could not immediately be reached for comment.