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Back-pay claim is settled for officer fired under cloud

Matthew Bruun

LEOMINSTER- The city has reached a settlement to end its decadelong dispute with former police Officer Warden L. Stratton, who has said he is entitled to $600,000 in back pay since his firing.

Mayor Dean J. Mazzarella would not disclose the terms of the settlement yesterday but indicated he would be sending a communication to the City Council today in anticipation of its regular meeting Monday night.

Mr. Stratton, 55, worked as a police officer for 15 years before he was fired a decade ago amid allegations he sexually abused his daughter and stepdaughter. Criminal charges were dropped when the girls refused to testify in court.

The city did not rehire Mr. Stratton, who fought for reinstatement. A lengthy legal battle ensued, ending last November when the Supreme Judicial Court refused to hear the city's appeal of an Appeals Court ruling that Mr. Stratton be returned to duty.

The court ruling meant Mr. Stratton was entitled to back pay and interest from the 10 years he was kept off the force.

Mr. Stratton has been back on the city payroll since December, collecting $2,412.06 that month, or $804.02 a week, according to city payroll records. His pay was bumped to $827.73 a week in January, and so far this year Mr. Stratton has been paid $5,783.96.

City Council President James J. Lanciani Jr. said yesterday he did not know the terms of the proposed settlement but assumed any financial payout would have to come from the city's dwindling free cash account.

Councilor Dennis A. Rosa, chairman of the Finance Committee that will have to review any proposed cash settlement, said about $1.6 million is left in the city's free cash account. A substantial cash settlement could have a serious impact on it, he said.

"I could look at the settlement as bringing closure to an issue, but no matter what it is, it's bad news for the city of Leominster," Mr. Rosa said. "There's no rainbow."

The mayor was accompanied by the city's labor lawyers last week for a lengthy executive session with the City Council to discuss the status of the case and the ongoing negotiations. A financial settlement will require council approval before being final.

Though Mr. Stratton said after the ruling he intended to return to duty and undergo modified training, two police academies have begun since the negotiations with the city have been under way, neither of which he attended.

Mr. Stratton's lawyer, Joseph A. Donnellan, acknowledged earlier this month that his client did not have to return to duty to collect any back pay that was owed him. Mr. Donnellan was not available for comment on the case yesterday.

Mr. Mazzarella made only brief mention of the case at a press conference yesterday morning, but in a statement after the Supreme Judicial Court ruling last year, he lamented the city's position.

"In my opinion, there exists more than sufficient evidence to sustain Stratton's termination," Mr. Mazzarella said last fall. "Having exhausted all avenues of appeals to prevent his reinstatement, the city is now forced to expend resources which could have been utilized to better the quality of life of Leominster citizens in order to comply with the court's directive."
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