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A recent lawsuit in Boulder City reveals the politics roiling under the placid surface

<p>Boulder City Police Chief Thomas Finn addresses the media following a fatal plane crash near the Boulder City Municipal Airport on May 18. PHOTO: STEVEN ANDREW JOHNSON</p>

Boulder City Police Chief Thomas Finn addresses the media following a fatal plane crash near the Boulder City Municipal Airport on May 18. PHOTO: STEVEN ANDREW JOHNSON

<p>Attorney Stephen Stubbs, left, who represents the Mongols Motorcycle Club, talks to Boulder City Attorney Dave Olsen. PHOTO: STEVE ANDRASCIK.</p>

Attorney Stephen Stubbs, left, who represents the Mongols Motorcycle Club, talks to Boulder City Attorney Dave Olsen. PHOTO: STEVE ANDRASCIK.

The morning of Oct. 22, Boulder City Police Chief Thomas Finn and city attorney Dave Olsen were speaking privately following a weekly staff meeting. Finn, who in his youth was badly injured when a drunken driver hit his motorcycle, had concerns that the city was not tough enough in its prosecution of DUI cases. But Finn’s concerns quickly changed when Olsen took a phone call from local attorney Stephen Stubbs.

“Olsen held the phone up and showed it to me and asked, ‘Do you want to listen?’” Finn said. “Although I was surprised by the offer, I replied, ‘Sure.’”

Stubbs, attorney for the Mongols Motorcycle Club, had recently named Finn in a federal lawsuit alleging he violated the civil rights of club members during the club’s June national meeting in Boulder City. However, Stubbs was calling Olsen about something different. He wanted to have Finn investigated for a more recent discovery that Finn sent an e-mail ordering officers to delete e-mails related to the preparation for the Mongols event. According to Stubbs, Finn, the police chief in Boulder City since 2006, likely committed one or more felonies by ordering the deletion of the public records.

The e-mail in question was sent June 11, more than a week before the gathering, to the department’s 29 full-time officers, as well as City Manager Vicki Mayes and fire chief Kevin Nicholson. It states the police department’s second-in-command, Lt. Vince Albowicz, made the “excellent suggestion” to delete e-mails related to law enforcement’s preparation for the Mongols event.

“If [the Mongols] submit a records request for them it would obviously show our hand and divulge the strategies and staffing levels we need to keep confidential. Therefore, please delete any and all e-mails related to the event immediately,” Finn’s e-mail says.

Finn admits that his e-mail was “poorly worded,” but says that no laws were broken because none of the e-mails were actually deleted. He said he was faced with a dangerous situation in which there was a possible hit out on a member of the Las Vegas Mongols chapter, and he did not want that information released. The situation was especially sensitive because, he said, he knew someone within his department had been releasing e-mails to Stubbs.

The reason Stubbs had called Olsen was no surprise to the city attorney. On Oct. 18 Stubbs, who has a history of making allegations against city officials, copied Olsen and City Councilman Cam Walker in an e-mail sent to the district attorney requesting an investigation. However, the DA told Stubbs that the case had to be referred by an investigative agency such as the Boulder City Police Department. Frustrated, Stubbs called Olsen. “I thought [the city] should have an active investigation, and Finn should not be police chief when they did this,” Stubbs later said.

What Finn overheard in the phone call between Olsen and Stubbs alarmed him. He filed a lawsuit Nov. 21 in Clark County District Court naming Olsen, Stubbs, Walker, Sgt. John Chase and Police Protective Association union president and retired Sgt. Dan Jennings. The lawsuit claims the defendants “acted in concert” to damage Finn’s reputation to the point that the city manager would have to place him on administrative leave or fire him. The suit also claims that the defendants’ aim was to replace Finn with Chase.

The suit opened the lid on the dangerous politics of the safe bedroom community. It also shows the lengths to which some will go to defend their character — even when there is no favorable outcome. If Finn loses the lawsuit, his reputation might be tarnished further. If he wins, he’ll be working with a department he has sued.

According to Finn’s notes on the conversation, Stubbs seemed “unusually comfortable” speaking to Olsen (which shouldn’t have surprised Finn considering Boulder City’s small legal community). He heard Stubbs say he was trying to find a police officer to file a complaint against Finn. And he also heard Stubbs say he had been speaking with Walker, who believed Olsen was conducting an investigation and that the new city manager (David Fraser, who begins work in January) would “take care of” Finn.

When Olsen hung up, Finn says he activated the voice recorder on his own phone, and recorded the remainder of their conversation without Olsen’s knowledge. Is that legal? The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press summarizes Nevada law this way: “An individual who has the consent of at least one party to an in-person conversation can lawfully record it or disclose its contents …” Also, according to Finn, there is no city policy preventing Finn from recording the city attorney (however, there is a police department policy preventing officers from recording each other, and in 2010 Finn disciplined Jennings for covertly recording a conversation they had).

“I have never covertly taped a conversation with a fellow city department head [prior to this], but when [Olsen] allowed me to listen in on a conversation he had with Stubbs, I was stunned,” Finn stated. “It confirmed my belief that there was a clear conspiracy to have me removed.”

Olsen said Finn’s conspiracy theory was created out of “virtually nothing.”

“Do you think if I was concerned about what Stubbs might say I would let Chief Finn listen to what Stubbs was saying?” he asked. Finn’s own notes state that Olsen told Stubbs it would be a conflict of interest for the city to investigate, and that he could not offer Stubbs any advice on the matter.

Walker admittedly approached Olsen after receiving Stubbs’ Oct. 18 e-mail to ask if Finn had broken any laws, if any e-mails were deleted and if it were appropriate to place Finn on administrative leave while it was sorted out. However, Walker says, there was “absolutely not” a conspiracy. In fact, prior to being named in the suit, Walker expressed his support for Finn to this reporter, saying, “I don’t believe there was any intent by the chief [to break the law] … his priority as the chief was to ensure the safety of the community.”

It’s true that in Boulder City that there are police officers who do not want Finn as their boss. On Nov. 21, two-thirds of the police union issued a “no confidence” vote against Finn and Albowicz, citing Finn’s e-mail, the lawsuit, a “toxic leadership environment” and other reasons. Finn left work for a three-week vacation Nov. 27 and was not available to comment on the union vote for this article. Albowicz declined to comment, but following the vote he resigned from his position and is now a sergeant.

Finn’s suit alleges that on Nov. 1, Jennings sent an e-mail to union members discussing Jennings’ belief that the new city manager would not retain Finn. While Jennings declined to comment, the e-mail he sent to the union is available on his website, and states, “My personal thoughts are the new city manager will not retain Chief Finn due to the current public issues, the low morale within this department, and the lack of a competitive process for specialty position.” Incoming city manager Fraser said he has not discussed Finn with Jennings or anyone else.

The suit also alleges Chase contacted city personnel administrator Bryce Boldt “and asked for a meeting with Boldt to discuss Finn’s alleged criminal conduct and intimidation of the police force.” The suit does not offer a date of the meeting, and its language is easily interpreted to seem as if the meeting happened recently, following the e-mail allegations against Finn. Chase declined to comment, but, according the Boldt, the meeting occurred two years ago. He did not go into detail on what was alleged.

“I was a little disappointed that [Finn] tried to make it seem like John Chase’s discussion with Bryce Boldt was part of the current conspiracy to remove him from his job, but the reality is that conversation took place a couple of years ago,” Olsen said.

Olsen and Stubbs say they believe Finn’s lawsuit was filed in an effort to make the defendants back away from the allegations against him. “I think that it is the classic example of a strategic lawsuit against public participation [SLAPP],” Olsen said. “I think the attempt is to scare people into backing off from their positions …” Nevada law prevents SLAPP lawsuits, which are filed to intimidate and silence critics. On Nov. 27 Stubbs filed an anti-SLAPP motion against Finn, requesting a dismissal and attorneys’ fees. “I feel that [Finn’s] lawsuit was generated solely as a defensive tactic so that [Finn] can get in the press that he sued people,” Stubbs said.

Finn’s attorney, Sean Flanagan, declined to comment.

If Finn sued to take the attention away from the allegations against him, it didn’t work, because on Nov. 27 the Boulder City Council voted to have Finn investigated by an outside agency, the Nevada Department of Investigation. The vote came after Olsen presented a legal opinion that there was “credible evidence” that Finn attempted to violate state law. “We need to be fair to the chief, but at the same time we represent Boulder City, and when allegations are made I think there’s an obligation on us, I think, to determine the next step,” Mayor Roger Tobler said at the meeting.

But even with the allegations, an investigation and the suit against four of his fellow city employees, Finn still has the support of the single person with the power to fire him under the city charter, the city manager. Mayes said she doesn’t think Finn attempted to delete public records, and questions whether the e-mails would even be considered public records. “The law is not all that clear as to what a record is,” she said.

And the union vote against Finn? Comes with the territory, Mayes said, noting that there has been an internal split of officer support for the last three police chiefs. “I still support Tom, and I think he’s done a great job for our community. I thought he brought a level of professionalism that we’ve never had in that department,” she said.

But with Mayes scheduled to retire Dec.12, it is unclear what the future holds for Finn. On Nov. 21, Finn said the allegations were a “career ender” and he did not expect to be chief for long. (He additionally has threatened the city with a civil suit and requested that he be paid $250,000, which the council has decided not to pay, Olsen said). However, Monday, he stated the opposite in a text message.

“I have 32 years as a cop and 14 as a police chief and I’m not planning on leaving the BCPD anytime soon,” Finn wrote. “There is still a lot of work to do to realize the department’s full potential.”