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Whistleblower in Portsmouth police inheritance case still gagged by department

Union Leader Correspondent

August 26. 2015 10:35PM
John Connors testifies during the probate case involving the estate of the late Geraldine Webber. (POOL PHOTO/RICH BEAUCHESNE/PORTSMOUTH HERALD)

PORTSMOUTH — Portsmouth is just days away from answering auxiliary police officer John Connors’ First Amendment lawsuit filed against the city in U.S. District Court.

The city must file its response in court by Sept. 8.

Connors was called before a police department internal investigation panel in late June, two months after testifying in probate court regarding what he knew about then-Sgt. Aaron Goodwin’s relationship with an elderly widow.

The panel wasn’t calling on Connors to probe possible wrongdoing by Goodwin, who was fired that same day for actions that almost led to him inheriting most of Geraldine Webber’s $2 million estate.

Instead, Connors was disciplined by the police chief for speaking publicly to a local reporter in August 2013 about frequent on-duty visits Goodwin made to Webber’s home. Connors had witnessed the visits firsthand because he was Webber’s next door neighbor until she died in December 2012 at age 94.

“They did pull him in and gave him some re-training and just continued the (gag) order,” Connors’ lawyer Paul McEachern said on Wednesday. “They told him that he had no right to speak.”

The response to Connors’ lawsuit will come in the wake of probate Judge Gary Cassavechia’s finding that, to some residents, exonerated Connors for speaking up. Goodwin used “undue influence” over the course of several months as he quickly took charge of Webber’s daily affairs, took her out for drinks and helped her find a new lawyer to rewrite her will, which had initially left much of her assets to two cancer research hospitals, the judge concluded.

Cassavechia also sharply criticized current and former members of the Portsmouth Police Department’s command staff for their “sometimes self-serving and dubious, often contradictory testimony” about what they knew of Goodwin and Webber’s relationship.

While residents who challenged Goodwin’s claim to Webber’s estate won a significant victory last week, Connors is still under order by the police department not to speak. That may not be changing anytime soon.

The city’s police commission — which has sole oversight of the department — is temporarily defunct after one of its members, Gerald Howe, resigned in late July, citing stress and health issues in part caused by dealing with the Goodwin case. Two finalists were chosen on Tuesday to fill that position until the November election when voters will be able to fill two positions on the three-member panel.

Police Chief Stephen DuBois concluded that Connors violated the department’s “media policy by public disclosure of police misconduct” on June 24, according to the lawsuit. Connors, who retired from full-time duty after 22 years on the department, was advised he could not talk about the Webber case to anyone — including the city council, the lawsuit says.

Charles Bauer, a lawyer representing the city in the Connors lawsuit, said it is too early to tell whether the dispute will ultimately go to trial or be resolved beforehand. A trial could be more than a year away.

DuBois, the chief, was named individually in the lawsuit, along with Howe and fellow police commissioner John Golumb. (Golumb announced on Wednesday he will not seek re-election.)

“It was unfortunate. There was no need to do so,” Bauer said of the three officials being pursued individually in court.

Bauer has not been involved in any of the other matters engrossing the Goodwin saga to date, including the independent investigation led by a retired judge or the probate court case.

“It’s going to take some time to develop issues,” he said of the lawsuit. “These are very complicated and complex legal issues that this case has put forth.”

McEachern, who also represented Connors and other former neighbors of Webber in the probate case, said from the beginning Connors complained to the chief, deputy chief, police commissioners and others about Goodwin’s actions, but they all refused to look into what he was doing.

“I was always of the belief that he had an absolute right to speak out on a matter of public concern,” McEachern said. “It took a long time to pull him in for a hearing and discipline him, but that did happen and it was unfortunate.”

Courts Portsmouth

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