Former Los Alamos resident Patrick Brenner and his mother, Los Alamos resident Lisa Brenner, have filed a federal lawsuit alleging retaliation and harassment including malicious prosecution and defamation against the Los Alamos County Council, Los Alamos Police Chief Dino Sgambellone and two unnamed police officers.
The suit also names Councilor Susan O’Leary and former Councilor James Chrobocinski in both their official and individual capacities.
The lengthy complaint filed Tuesday by attorneys Blair Dunn and Dori E. Richards states that the case arises from a complaint lodged by the Brenners with Los Alamos County, which was filed “after a series of events triggered by the exercise of their right to free speech and a request for public documents”.
The suit initially discusses the period of time after the Council voted to hold a recreation bond election May 23, 2017 and states that after Patrick Brenner had announced his candidacy for Council, Chrobocinski in a meeting told him that if he did not support the rec bond, he would not support Patrick Brenner. It says Patrick Brenner understood the statement to be a threat, that Chrobocinski “would actively engage to prevent Patrick Brenner from receiving funds or support for his Council race” and take “any possible actions against him to destroy his potential for being elected as a Council member”.
The suit discusses O’Leary and Chrobocinski’s involvement in the creation of a Political Action Committee (PAC) called “Los Alamos Futures” in support of the rec bond and their positions of PAC treasurer and secretary respectively. It says the Council also advertised for the rec bond with expenditures sponsored or approved in part by O’Leary and Chrobocinski. In April 2017, Patrick and Lisa Brenner founded the PAC No Way NM LLC dba A Better Way For LA specifically to fight the rec bond election.
The suit goes on to discuss interaction between the Brenners, the County Community Development Department and Chrobocinski concerning verbage on pro rec bond signage and complaints filed by Lisa Brenner with the Secretary of State’s Office and the County in early May 2017.
May 15, 2017, the suit states that Patrick Brenner, exercising his 1st Amendment rights, sent an email to all seven Council members “advising that he would work zealously to defeat the rec bond”. It says he expected compliance with the City Charter as to his communication, which “prevents the disclosure of confidential information outside of compliance with the Inspection of Public Records (IPRA)”.
The Brenners state that only four hours after sending the email, Patrick Brenner received a phone call from Carol Clark, owner of the Los Alamos Daily Post seeking his comments on the email, which at that time the suit says Patrick Brenner had not disclosed to any person outside the Council members. The suit claims Clark refused to identify which Council member provided the email to her and that Patrick Brenner requested his communication not be published.
“With the knowledge that his letter would soon be published in the local newspaper and believing that when he originally sent the email it would remain private, Patrick Brenner began suffering anxiety and emotional distress,” the suit states. It goes on to say that the Los Alamos Daily Post published the communication online that same evening.
“Many hostile and threatening letters to the editor were posted in response. The communication had only been sent by Patrick Brenner to the seven-member County Council and no one else. For Ms. Clark to have received the email on the day and within hours of when it was sent to the County Council, a recipient of the communication either directly or indirectly provided it to the LADP,” the suit states. It claims the communication was released outside of “permissible processes” to impact the rec bond vote.
The suit details the IPRA request filed with the County also May 15, 2017, asking for each and every email from County Councilors on that date and claims the County did not provide the requested records. It claims that nine hours after Patrick Brenner sent the email communication, Chrobocinski contacted Chief of Police Dino Sgambellone through email “accusing Brenner of being unhinged and asserting that Brenner was a threat to him, and others”.
The Brenners go on to describe the aftermath of the publication of the email stating that they have suffered considerable loss of business to their printing and marketing firm and have suffered considerable anxiety and emotional distress. They state that subsequent publication of the email on the Los Alamos Daily Post Facebook page resulted in “Facebook users from Los Alamos and throughout the country … posting derogatory, defamatory, hurtful and negative comments further harming Mr. Brenner, his reputation and his family”.
The suit says Lisa Brenner prepared a statement to present in person at the May 16 Council meeting petitioning them to “correct the abuse of power and unethical behavior evinced by County Council members’ publication of her son’s communication to the press (and this subsequent republication) for political purposes”.
It claims that when she arrived at Council Chambers, she “was confronted outside of chambers by multiple police officers” and that “police officers, in their official capacity, are not generally present” at County Council meetings but were there to “chill the Plaintiff’s right to petition their government”. It says Lisa Brenner was “frightened and intimidated as two Los Alamos police officers stared and her, continually pointed at her and made comments”.
“Because of the intimidation of Los Alamos police officers and the chilling effect of their conduct, Mrs. Brenner left the meeting without addressing the council. Councilor Chrobocinski used Mr. Brenner’s email communication, which while strongly worded was not threatening, to create controversy and involve law enforcement at Council meetings and to intimidate Plaintiffs,” the suit says.
Another claim in the suit is that when Patrick and Lisa Brenner attended Stefan Brenner’s high school graduation, an LAPD officer stood within 10 feet of the family, following Patrick Brenner and his youngest daughter throughout the event and that a female LAPD officer followed him and his daughter down a stairwell while staring at them. The Brenners also believe a false allegation by Chrobocinski was used to convince Chief Sgambellone to “harass and retaliate” against Patrick by urging that Patrick Brenner was dangerous.
In June 2017, the suit states that Patrick Brenner filed an “official confidential ethics complaint” with County Human Resources Manager Denise Cassel alleging that O’Leary and Chrobocinski were engaged in an abuse of power to damage Patrick Brenner’s reputation, to chill Brenner from engaging in political activities and to further their own personal interests.
“Such complaints are confidential per the County Charter. The complaining parties’ identity is required to be maintained confidentially,” the suit states. It claims Patrick Brenner was specifically asked about the Los Alamos Daily Post article in an interview and then not offered the position. In July 2017, it states that Patrick Brenner through an attorney sent a cease and desist letter to all Council members.
The suit also alleges that the results of the “confidential” ethics investigation were released “outside of normal disclosure of government information standards” by the County Council resulting in articles in local newspapers and that the results of the investigation were never released to the Brenners. The Brenners claim Patrick Brenner’s home address was released by the County, which resulted in vandalism at their residence.
“As a result of the actions taken by Defendants, Plaintiffs have suffered anxiety and emotional distress. Plaintiffs and their family members do not feel safe in their homes. Plaintiffs have each suffered lost employment opportunities and have suffered a loss of business. Plaintiffs have been retaliated against and had their constitutional rights violated. Plaintiffs continue to experience harassment and retaliation by the Los Alamos County Council, the Los Alamos Police Department; and have been further retaliated against by community members as a result of Defendants’ actions,” the suit states.
The Brenners are asking for a jury trial on the merits in the case, a declaration that their Constitutional rights under the First Amendment were violated, general and compensatory damages according to proof. They also are requesting “punitive damages in such amount as will sufficiently punish defendants for their willful and malicious conduct and serve as an example to prevent a repetition of such conduct in the future”; interest on such damages awarded at the legal rate from the date of judgment until paid; and an order granting their costs and attorney fees.
Assistant County Attorney Kevin Powers told the Los Alamos Daily Post this morning that his office does not comment on pending litigation.