Former Oneida County forestry director John Bilogan has filed a statutory notice of claim or potential claims against Oneida County, alleging breach of contract, wrongful termination, civil conspiracy, and a violation of his civil and contractual rights.
Pursuant to the claim, Bilogan is seeking one year's salary for wrongful and constructive termination, a sum equaling $80,125; another $50,000 for defamation, which is the maximum amount under state statutes; and $10,000 for a trespass and property damage claim.
In addition, according to Bilogan's attorney, Scott Swid, Bilogan is reserving his rights against the county for additional damages in the amount of $450,000 for his claim of civil conspiracy and violation of civil rights.
By statute, before filing a lawsuit, a person alleging injury by the county government must file a written notice of claim within 120 days of the event giving rise to the claim.
The county has up to 120 days to allow or disallow the claim.
In the notice of claim, Swid observed that, until this past September, Bilogan served as the county's forestry director. Then, the notice asserts, he was effectively fired.
"On September 10, 2019, Mr. Bilogan was forced into retirement, with his employment constructively terminated," the notice states.
That followed a sheriff's department investigation that, Swid contends, contained statements falsely vilifying Bilogan.
"On or about July 17, 2019, the Oneida County sheriff released investigative reports containing false and defamatory statements about Mr. Bilogan," the notice states.
In that investigation, the sheriff's department recommended a felony charge of misconduct against Bilogan for using a McNaughton inmate work crew to perform brushing on a portion of county forestland that was being made into a town road leading to property Bilogan had recently purchased.
According to the investigation, Bilogan had also utilized another employee of the forestry department and county equipment, though he was personally responsible for all costs incurred for the construction of the road because it was not a county project. On the day in question, the investigation stated, Bilogan accompanied a crew of 10 inmates and a wood chipper to the job site.
However, despite the sheriff's department's referral to the district attorney, as of late last week Bilogan has yet to be charged with any crime.
The Oneida County district attorney recused himself from a charging decision early on and referred the case to the Lincoln County district attorney's office.
But that's not all, the notice alleges. In the week prior to his retirement, on or about Sept. 5, 2019, the notice continues, Bilogan was threatened with criminal prosecution and possible loss of his pension should he choose not to retire from his employment with the county.
"This threat was followed by a requirement that Mr. Bilogan participate in an interview with Oneida County assistant corporation counsel Michael J. Fugle," the notice states. "Mr. Bilogan was not provided with a Garrity warning regarding the interview until after he had, through legal counsel, announced his intention to retire while simultaneously denying any wrongdoing or misconduct."
A Garrity warning advises employees who may be under investigation of their rights, including the right to remain silent on any issues that might implicate them in a crime.
Specifically, in Garrity v. New Jersey in 1967, the Supreme Court held that Fourteenth Amendment protections against coerced statements prohibits the use in criminal proceedings of statements obtained under threat of removal from office.
Bilogan's contractual and constitutional rights were violated, the notice asserts.
"Our client's contractual rights were interfered with by the county, or its officers, agents, or employees, who knowingly proceeded with a civil conspiracy against our client," the notice states. "In addition, interference with our client's rights, including but not limited to, breach of contract, occurred. In addition, our client's civil rights were violated, rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution, and the amendments thereto protecting civil liberties."
Bilogan's notice of claim also includes new allegations against Oneida County for trespassing and property damage.
"Further, on or about November 2019, Oneida County trespassed over Mr. Bilogan's land, in conjunction with an ATV trail rehabilitation grant, bulldozing over a series of trees as well as transporting boulders on to Mr. Bilogan's land," the notice states. "The county also graded the ATV trail to redirect storm run-off away from the swamp area to which they were naturally deposited, onto the Bilogan property."
While he was still forestry director, Swid wrote, Bilogan had a better idea.
"Prior to his termination, Mr. Bilogan had recommended a less harmful solution to address erosion on the ATV trail which borders his land, and proposed a land swap intended to redirect the ATV trail while providing Mr. Bilogan legal road access to his property on Hilderbrandt Lake."
The Bilogan investigation started this past spring after a DNR complaint, according to Oneida County corporation counsel Brian Desmond.
In an April 17, 2019, email from Desmond to county human resources director Lisa Charbarneau, Desmond said the DNR's Manny Oradei had turned Bilogan in for using county equipment to build a town road to his house.
Desmond said Oradei did not want to be implicated, but that he advised Desmond that a lot of unethical things were going on.
"Manny has also, on numerous occasions, indicated to me that there is a whole lot of other unethical behavior going on but will not elaborate," Desmond wrote. "Manny also indicates that the forestry staff is aware of other ethical issues but are afraid of retaliation and will not say anything."
Throughout the year, Bilogan has maintained his innocence.
"Some people have described this a witch hunt," Swid told The Lakeland Times in September, when he first announced that Bilogan intended to file a notice of claim. "I describe it as an improper conspiracy. You cannot interfere with someone's contractual employment rights. This to me is as wrong as wrong can be."
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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