Former Police Chief Files Lawsuit Against Mount Dora Alleging Whistleblower Violation, Says He was Ordered to Stop Internal Affairs Investigations

MOUNT DORA, Florida—The former chief of Mount Dora Police Department has filed a lawsuit against the City of Mount Dora.

James “Brett” Meade, filed the suit in Lake County Circuit Court late Monday afternoon, alleging a violation of the Florida Public Whistleblowers Act. Meade was named the city’s interim police chief in July 2020 after former Chief Robert Bell abruptly retired following the firing of former Deputy Chief Michael Fewless. Fewless was fired after having a conversation with this reporter, and this reporter broke the story of his firing. Fewless sued, also alleging whistleblower violations and the city settled with him for more than $250,000.

Mount Dora has had four police chiefs in just three years. John O’Grady was fired in 2019 after an investigation into misconduct involving a statement he allegedly made to an officer. He later sued and reached a settlement agreement that paid him more than $60,000. Bell was named chief following O’Grady’s firing and served less than a year before retiring after Fewless was fired. Bell faced allegations of a hostile work environment and favoring a female subordinate—the same officer who made the accusations against O’Grady— including having a relationship with her. During a deposition in the Fewless case, Bell admitted to the relationship though he “vehemently” denied it while he was chief, Fewless said in his deposition. Meade was named interim chief by former City Manager Robin Hayes following Bell’s abrupt retirement. Meade, along with former Deputy Chief Al Rollins were hired in part to assess the department.

James “Brett” Meade PHOTO: City of Mount Dora

“Chief Meade was tasked with serving the Mount Dora Police Department as their Interim Chief of Police and to conduct a comprehensive department assessment, which included surveys from officers and staff as well as the public,” a press release from the City of Mount Dora stated when Meade was named permanent chief in June 2021.

Hayes left the city nine months after the appointments of Meade and Rollins, in April 2021, when she and the city “agreed to part ways.”

Rollins retired after a little more than a year and Capt. Michael Gibson was then named deputy chief; Gibson was later named interim chief after Meade’s separation from the city and holds that position today.

In Meade’s suit, he states he initiated two internal affairs investigations for excessive force by a Mount Dora Police officer on Feb. 15; less than a month later he learned that Human Resources Director Sharon Kraynick asked the Lake County Sheriff’s Office to take over the internal affairs investigation and to investigate Meade.

Meade spoke with Kraynick and City Manager Patrick Comiskey by phone and informed them it was his responsibility to conduct the investigation and according to the Florida Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights, an outside agency cannot conduct departmental internal affairs investigations. The following week, Meade sent an email to Comiskey and provided him a copy of the state statute.

“Mr. Comiskey nonetheless insisted Meade continue the City’s efforts to have the investigation conducted by an outside law enforcement agency,” the complaint states.

Meade then contacted seven different law enforcement agencies and they all declined to conduct the investigation.

On April 5, Meade sent a written memo to Comiskey informed him no other agency would conduct the investigation and asked for permission to move forward with the current internal investigation. Comiskey never responded and Meade resumed his investigation, according to the suit.

On May 9, another video of a Mount Dora Police officer using excessive force was released, and in an interview with an Orlando media outlet, Meade said an internal investigation would be conducted; two days later Comiskey emailed Meade and said it was imperative the investigation be conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE.) Later that day Meade and Gibson, who is now the department’s interim chief, met with Comiskey and again explained the investigation could not be conducted by an outside agency. Comiskey is alleged to have said he was being advised “differently” but would not say where he was getting his information.

In mid-May, Comiskey contacted the FDLE commissioner and requested FDLE conduct the investigation; Comiskey was referred to a special agent who told him FDLE conducts criminal investigations, not internal administrative investigations.

On May 19, Comiskey emailed Meade and said he was securing an outside agency to conduct the investigation and Meade again cited Florida law and requested a meeting with the undisclosed person advising Comiskey. On May 31, Meade sent yet another email advising Comiskey of his authority and his intent to proceed with the latest investigation into use of force, in addition to a Florida Attorney General opinion regarding city manager involvement in police internal investigations.

Meade followed up with a meeting with Comiskey and Kraynick and Comiskey ordered the investigation be stopped. Meade told the pair they were interfering with his duties, and they would have to fire him to stop him from carrying out his lawful duty. The same night, outside of business hours, at around 7:45 p.m., Comiskey emailed Meade and ordered him to cease his investigation and if he disregarded the order, he would be subject to termination. The following day, on June 1, Comiskey sent Meade another email “threatening that if Meade failed to follow his demand, he would be subject to disciplinary action including probable termination,” the complaint states.

A copy of an email exchange between Brett Meade and Mount Dora City Manager Patrick Comiskey. Meade filed a copy of the email with his lawsuit as supporting evidence of his claims.

Meade was given two options, either allow the city to violate the law by circumventing his responsibility to conduct internal investigations or be terminated. “As Meade had sworn to uphold the law, the only action he or any reasonable employee could have taken in that situation was to involuntarily resign in order to escape illegal employment requirements. The involuntary resignation on June 1, 2022, amounts to a constructive discharge in retaliation for engaging on protected activity in violation of Florida’s Public Whistleblowers Act,” the complaint states.

At a city council meeting following Meade’s involuntary resignation, numerous residents and business owners spoke in support of Meade and expressed their displeasure in his departure. A chaplain for the police and fire department likened his leaving to losing a parent.

Meade, who earned $130,000 annually as chief, is seeking more than $30,000 in damages and is represented by Richard W. Smith of NeJame Law in Orlando.

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