Hired attorneys for the City of Sparks are seeking a dismissal of the lawsuit filed by Sparks Police Officer George Forbush.
The suit, which seeks $1 million in damages, was filed after Forbush was disciplined with four days of unpaid leave and told he had to undergo diversity training for posting on Twitter tweets deemed by the city and police department to violate the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) cops have with Sparks.
Sparks hired Holland and Hart attorneys to defend itself against Forbush.
“Although Forbush styles his Complaint as a challenge to the City’s policies and its staff’s application of these policies related to employee speech, the allegations in his Complaint show that he contests the City’s basis for taking disciplinary action against him,” attorney Jordan Walsh wrote in late June.
Walsh argued that the CBA requires both parties to submit disputes about provision of the CBA through a grievance procedure. She further said a dispute about the grievance should instead be left to an arbitrator.
“Forbush’s right to challenge the City’s conduct outside of the forum prescribed in the Grievance Procedure was waived by the [Sparks Police Protective Association], and he cannot bring his claims before the court,” she added.
Sparks is paying Holland and Hart from $300 to nearly $900 an hour to defend itself against the lawsuit.
Forbush’s tweets were first reported by a TV news station, which did not report his name. But Forbush’s Twitter account was public until This Is Reno was tipped off by a reader who identified him as the author of the tweets.
Soon after, the account was set to private, meaning the tweets were no longer public. Before that, however, a PDF file was posted online that archived all of his tweets that had been published to date.
Documents filed in the case reveal what happened next. After the tweets were publicized in early August of 2020, an internal investigation was launched. Forbush was suspended from serving on the bomb squad where he served as a bomb technician. He was relieved of all official police duties and given leave with pay pending results of the internal investigation.
A 17-page report was generated as a result of the investigation. That report was signed Oct.17, 2020 by then Deputy Chief Chris Crawforth, who is now police chief. Crawforth initiated discipline for eight alleged violations of department policies.
Forbush formally protested through his attorney Mark Kilburn on Nov. 9. A hearing was held Dec. 1.
Sparks officials on Dec. 14 issued a decision supporting leave without pay “and unilaterally added an addition to the recommended discipline that Officer Forbush attend diversity training within the next three months, a requirement never requested or mentioned in the recommendation for discipline,” Kilburn alleged.
Crawforth upheld the discipline two days letter. Forbush had to take Dec. 17 through the 24th off of work, unpaid.
Kilburn claimed Sparks violated its own rules, violated Forbush’s free speech rights and discriminated against Forbush. He requested discipline be rescinded, all pay and benefits be restored and his record be wiped of any findings related to the case.
“You did not explicitly identify yourself as a Sparks Police Officer on your Twitter profile, but you provided ample information for members of the public to identify you as such,” Crawforth wrote in a letter denying Forbush’s grievance against the department. “Four … Tweets expressed a desire to commit acts of violence against people with whom you disagree, to use excessive force, and to plant evidence.
“These Tweets could reasonably be viewed as malicious, threatening, and intimidating. Your Tweets … caused some of the citizens we are called to serve to fear physical harm or injury at the hands of you or other Sparks Police Officers.”
Forbush sued the city in April of this year.
Veiled threats made after tweets made public
Forbush’s online behavior generated complaints to the City of Sparks, its police department and to Secret Witness.
“One citizen who complained to Sparks Police Department described [a] Tweet ‘as explicit threats against Black Lives Matter protestors’ [sic]” Crawforth noted. “Another citizen complained to Secret Witness, ‘This is an egregious abuse of power and it is clear that he … is a threat to the safety of our community. He … should resign immediately.’”
Another person called police dispatch to report the threat against leftist protesters.
“This perceived threat has, in turn, detrimentally affected the public perception of you as a Sparks Police Officer, Sparks Police Department, and the City of Sparks,” Crawforth added.
Meghan Simons was one of those who wrote a complaint.
She also penned an opinion article, called “Sparks Police Officer George Forbush wants to kill me,” about the situation.
Since that was published, she said she received threats from a Facebook account in the name of Karla Forbush. That account first had a profile photo of a black woman, then a white woman and now seems to no longer exist.
“Here’s Karla Forbush, sister of George Forbush, creeping on my Facebook and threatening to use the family court against me for exposing him as a racist with violent fantasies,” Simons wrote in May on Facebook.
Simons said she filed a second complaint about the Karla Forbush comments to Sparks Police and never received a response to two complaints she filed.
Damon O’Connell, Sparks Police’s public information officer, said one complaint was investigated internally, and completed. He said Simons in the second instance “was given information based on the circumstances of the phone call [and] options on how to take care of her situation. Based on her circumstances as she explained, and her living location in Reno, she was told how she could handle this.
“Due to this case still being an internal investigation, coupled with the current litigation involved, we are unable to provide you with further information at this time,” he added.
Forbush, through his attorneys, on Monday opposed Sparks’ motion to dismiss the case. They argued that the CBA is not superseded by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“Officer Forbush’s speech was constitutionally protected because he spoke while off duty, as a private citizen, on matters of public concern; his protected speech was the basis for the adverse employment actions taken against him by the City and its officials; and the action would not have been taken against him in the absence of the protected speech,” they wrote.
UPDATE July 22, 2021: This story has been updated to include comment from Sparks Police spokesperson O’Connell.
Response to grievance
Motion to dismiss
Response to the motion to dismiss
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor, and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time research appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.