News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 21, 2007

Political backlash suit names city officials

Police hopeful alleges retaliation from Burke, Ralston, merit commission

By Deb Kelly

TERRE HAUTE — The brother of a city police officer has filed a lawsuit claiming the Terre Haute Police Merit Commission dropped him from its candidate hire list because of his association with police officers who politically oppose Mayor Kevin Burke.

Paul Czupryn, 27, filed the lawsuit Nov. 14, alleging retaliation and seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

The complaint names Burke, individually and as mayor; George Ralston, individually and as chief of police of the Terre Haute Police Department; the Merit Commission, and the three current members of the commission.

Czupryn is the brother of Jason Czupryn (pronounced ZOO-prin), who has been a member of the Police Department since the fall of 2000. Jason Czupryn openly supported mayoral candidate James Horrall during the municipal primary election. In addition, Jason Czupryn provided an unfavorable reference for Chief Ralston’s son, Philip, who also applied to the THPD and eventually was hired, according to Paul Czupryn.

The complaint arose after Paul Czupryn was removed from the Merit Commission’s hire list last month. Czupryn had applied in February 2006 to the THPD to be employed as a patrolman, and was placed near the top of a waiting list of applicants in September 2006.

After a meeting of the Merit Commission on Oct. 17, Paul Czupryn was removed from the list.

According to Czupryn, who said he earned the third-highest written test score out of 300 applicants, had the fastest mile and a half on the physical test and is “one of very few who has a four-year college degree,” the only possible reason for his removal from the list is political backlash.

Mark Hassler, attorney for the Merit Commission, said he doesn’t think Czupryn’s suit has any merit.

“It’s kind of difficult to ascertain all the different complaints he’s making,” Hassler said.

Czupryn’s complaint alleges, among other things, that the Oct. 17 merit commission meeting was conducted in violation of Indiana’s Open Door Law. An independent finding of the state public access counselor determined the meeting did not violate the law, but Czupryn’s attorney, Eric Frey, said the finding by the public access counselor was based on false information provided to them by the Merit Commission.

According to the Nov. 5 letter from the public access counselor, the commission became concerned in July 2007 upon learning that Paul Czupryn was appointed to and subsequently resigned from the Indiana State Police Recruit Academy.

Czupryn says his first choice has always been the Terre Haute Police Department, but he applied to the State Police because “the [THPD] list was fixed” and he was concerned about his ability to get a job there.

But after his first day of the Indiana State Police Academy, Czupryn decided he did not fit well with the agency. According to the complaint, “He advised the State Police that he was leaving and was returning to his family’s business.”

Czupryn said, “The [THPD] Merit Commission absolutely can get rid of me for character issues … it would be fair if I’d been forcibly removed from the [Indiana State Police] Academy … but voluntarily resigning certainly is not a character issue …

“The real reason they did all this is because my brother worked on the wrong campaign and gave the police chief’s son a bad reference,” he said.

The Terre Haute native added that the Merit Commission refuses to tell “my lawyer or myself why they removed me.”

Frey, Czupryn’s lawyer, said, “Nobody else [on the hire list] gets the sort of scrutiny he got.”

Czupryn’s hope is that after a new mayor takes office, and a new police chief is appointed, there also will be new members appointed to the Merit Commission.

At that point, “they can take the action of reopening my case and re-evaluating whether or not they’ll reinstate me [on the hiring list].”

Czupryn said he thinks he will have the support of other police officers already on the Police Department.

“They are absolutely sick of the corruption,” he said, adding, “Everybody that was open about supporting Horrall paid very dearly for their support of him.”

He said he has no doubt that the lawsuit will turn out in his favor.

The defense has until mid-December to file an answer to the complaint.

Hassler, attorney for the Merit Commission, said he hopes to see the entire suit dismissed.

Deb Kelly can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or deb.mckee@tribstar.com.