Troopers lawyer

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Trooper attorney requested test info

By Billy Davis

An attorney who represented seven Mississippi state troopers suing the Miss. Department of Public Safety over test cheating allegations had sought numerous records from the highway patrol before the lawsuit was settled out of court.

The Panolian reported last week that the lawsuit was dropped and the seven troopers — three from Panola County — were allowed to return to work as part of the settlement with their superiors.

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The troopers from Panola County are Tim Douglas, Shane Phelps and Bryan Sullivan.

A trial date was set for May 2013 in Jackson before U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate according to court documents.

There were 30 witnesses expected to testify in a trial that was expected to last seven days.

U.S. District Court records show attorney Dennis Horn, to prepare for trial, demanded information about troopers’ test scores following a promotions test administered last August.

Horn requested promotions that were approved and denied following the test, and the race of troopers who were promoted or denied promotion.

The test was administered last August for master sergeant, lieutenant and captain. The troopers were disciplined last September.

The attorney also asked the Department of Public Safety to cite any state troopers — and their race, rank, and phone numbers — who have been promoted without undergoing a promotions test since 2006.

The Clarion-Ledger has reported that 14 troopers were disciplined over allegations of cheating on the promotions exam, when some of the troopers had access to previous test questions.

Four troopers retired while 10 remained in uniform but were demoted and suspended without pay.  

Nine troopers appealed their firings and seven of them sued on the grounds the Mississippi Highway Patrol knowingly allowed troopers to study previous test questions to prepare for the exam.

Horn also demanded the Department of Public Safety produce a list of state troopers who also had study materials but were not punished, and explain why they went unpunished.

That demand was likely a reference to the original complaint, which alleged a trooper assigned to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant security team “utilized some of the same study questions” but avoided punishment. The lawsuit identified the trooper as Lt. Jimmy Jordan.

A spokesman for Gov. Bryant’s office told The Panolian the state office would not comment about the lawsuit because it’s a “personnel issue.”  

The seven plaintiffs also claimed they were punished because the highway patrol was under fire to prove there was no racial discrimination in the agency despite accusations from black state troopers, and despite an investigation by the NAACP and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Six of the seven state troopers who sued are white.

Horn’s lawsuit alleged Col. Donnell Berry, director of the Miss. Highway Patrol, admitted to Douglas and other troopers that they were being punished because of the ongoing investigation of MHP that had involved the United States Justice Department. According to the complaint:

Col. Berry represented verbally to the Plaintiffs… that the discipline would be short-lived and that the discipline had to be meted out against them (being majority white) because of the class action discrimination Charge of Racial Discrimination filed with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by African American troopers…”

Berry’s words to the disciplined troopers were made in the company of other troopers and were widely know within the highway patrol according to someone with knowledge of the incident.

Batesville attorney Tom Womble, who reviewed the lawsuit for The Panolian, said it appeared that the state troopers who filed suit could substantiate a difference in treatment of troopers.

“There was probably documentation of that,” Womble speculated.

Womble also agreed the “pointed questions” posed by Horn suggested there were records of what he requested for trial, such as troopers who were promoted without tests.

Panola Sheriff Dennis Darby, a retired state trooper, said it was widely known at the Miss. Highway Patrol that previous test answers circulated among some state troopers.

Troopers remembered test questions from tests, and those answers were collected over time and shared with other troopers, he said.

“It was well known the test questions were floating out there,” said Darby. “It was common knowledge.”

Horn’s lawsuit also suggested the practice was commonplace, beginning in 1997. There were as many as 1,500 questions in a study bank and no policy prohibiting troopers from sharing the materials.  

Horn did not respond to a request for comment from The Panolian.

Derrick Johnson, who heads the Mississippi NAACP, did not respond to a phone call requesting comment.