Police commissioner testifies in PAL leader’s asbestos-retaliation suit

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey speaks
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey speaks with U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger. Credit: Charles Mostoller/Metro file photo

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey testified Thursday in the lawsuit of a former Police Athletic League (PAL) center leader who claims he was the victim of retaliation after complaining about a contractor’s work.

Ramsey testified that letters received by Officer Paul Zenak, after he complained, are not meant to be disciplinary according to official police protocol, and it was improper for the officer writing to imply that.

“He cannot make that decision as a sergeant. No member of the department has that authority,” Ramsey said.

A counseling letter sent in March 2012 to Zenak from then-Sgt. Kevin Rice states, “The noncompliance of you not running a program that could increase the number of youth attending the Wissinoming PAL Center is unacceptable. … Failure to do so will lead to further disciplinary action.”

Zenak’s lawyer, Aaron Freiwald, says the officer was running a program attended by plenty of youth — and that the warnings were an attack on Zenak for speaking up about a contractor hired by a superior officer.

“Officer Zenak never had a blemish on his record,” Freiwald said at trial Tuesday. “This is harassment, retaliation, punishment. It’s papering his file, setting him up for mistreatment in his job.”

Zenak says he believes Rice was trying to intimidate him, because he had questioned the work of Joe Bailey, a contractor who identified asbestos in the basement and was paid $22,000 to clean it up despite not being licensed in asbestos removal. In court papers Zenak claims friends in the department warned him that Rice had been sent to “get” him by Sgt. Eric Ervin.

Bailey was originally hired by Ervin, and Freiwald questioned the relationship between the two men at trial as Bailey was paid $22,000 for shoddy asbestos removal work despite not having a Philadelphia license for asbestos removal.

Lt. Bryan Anthony, formerly a supervising officer at PAL, testified at trial that Ervin hired Bailey on the recommendation of a longtime PAL volunteer.

Upon direct questioning, Ramsey confirmed during testimony Thursday that to his knowledge, an Internal Affairs investigation of the conduct of Ervin and Rice regarding Bailey is ongoing.

Freiwald also played a recording of a PAL committee meeting in April 2012, where member Jeff Kahn asked why Zenak wasn’t fired for not doing his duties as PAL director.

Anthony responds on the recording, “We’re dealing with that. We’re working through that.”

City lawyers countered that Zenak wanted out of his job, was never retaliated against and was not definitely exposed to asbestos, as the “asbestos” Bailey found was never scientifically tested and proven to be real.

Calling Bailey a “con man,” they said Zenak misunderstood the confusion stemming from Bailey’s deception as retaliation against him personally, and pointed out that Zenak still has his job, without reduced pay or demotion.

Questioned about allowing Bailey to work at the PAL center, Anthony said he was not an expert in asbestos removal and wanted the work done quickly.

“I was trying to get the work done before the school year started,” Anthony testified at trial Tuesday.

Zenak claims he was told by Bailey that there was asbestos covering pipes in the homework room of the Wissinoming PAL Center, located in the basement of the Wissinoming United Methodist Church, in September 2011 — three years after Zenak started leading programs for kids at the center.

On Oct. 4, 2011, the day asbestos removal was due to be completed, Zenak entered the PAL center and discovered the homework room covered in dust and debris with remnants of the alleged asbestos everywhere. He contacted Ervin, who personally called Bailey and demanded he clear the room immediately, according to court papers.

Over the next six months Zenak claims his questions about air safety testing, the reliability of Bailey’s work and Bailey’s asbestos removal license were not answered; instead he began to receive counseling letters, and took a year of sick leave beginning April 2012 after beginning to suffer problems breathing. Zenak did not report being diagnosed with any asbestos-related sickness.

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