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Termination upheld by county judge, but was under appeal to higher court
White Oak Council voted 4-3 to rehire a former police officer who was terminated over allegations that he assaulted his wife in September 2018.
The motion was introduced at Monday’s meeting by Councilman Lou Bender, chair of the public safety committee. The officer, Timothy Estep, was hired by the borough in 1995 and terminated in December 2018.
Bender and council members Julie Opferman, Ed Babyak and Chuck Davis voted in favor of rehiring Estep. George Dillinger, Ken Robb and George Pambacas voted against.
In a contentious discussion at Monday’s meeting, livestreamed on Facebook and Zoom, veteran Councilman Kenneth Robb warned fellow officials, “If anything happens as a result of the vote to bring him back, and we get sued, I’m going to offer as additional defendants the people who voted to bring him back.”
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “I think it’s premature to even think about bringing him back to work and I’m against ever bringing him back to work.”
Estep will not receive any back pay and his reinstatement is contingent upon both parties signing a “last-chance” agreement to be written by borough solicitor Patricia McGrail.
Estep was arrested by Allegheny County police and charged with simple assault in connection with an alleged case of domestic abuse on Sept. 17, 2018.
According to media reports at the time, the charge was dismissed at a preliminary hearing after Estep’s wife informed the Allegheny County district attorney’s office she did not want to pursue the case.
Former Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Sachs agreed to drop the charges on the condition Estep complete a batterer’s intervention program, according to published reports.
Mike Manko, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s office, on Wednesday criticized the handling of the case.
“The disposition of this case was not handled properly by an ADA, who was either untruthful about what happened that day or deliberately tried to mislead investigators about those events,” Manko said. “The borough has gone through an administrative process that resulted in (Monday) night’s vote and will move forward based on that vote.”
Court records indicate White Oak borough council suspended Estep on Oct. 8, 2018, and fired him Dec. 27, 2018, alleging that he had engaged in “conduct unbecoming of a White Oak Borough police officer.”
Estep appealed the decision to the White Oak civil service commission, which in March 2019 ruled that council had acted improperly by considering two previous allegations from 2007 and 2009 that were supposed to have been removed from Estep’s personnel file after one year, according to court records.
Court records state the commission modified council’s decision from termination to a one-year suspension without pay, and ordered Estep to undergo counseling for anger management and drug and alcohol abuse, as well as random drug and alcohol testing.
Borough council appealed the commission’s decision to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. In November 2019, county Judge Joseph James upheld council’s authority to fire Estep.
Estep appealed James’ decision to Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, which has not yet heard the case.
Robb said rehiring the officer could be a “terrible liability” to the borough and alleged that suspects arrested by White Oak police may try to use Estep’s record against him.
“Even if he didn’t do anything wrong, it’s a public record,” Robb said. “It can be used against him at any time and any circumstance and these criminals out there aren’t looking for honesty, they’re looking for a way out.”
Robb had a heated exchange with Bender, who was a White Oak police officer for 25 years, retiring in 2017 as chief.
Robb alleged that Bender “wants to bring (Estep) back to work after you told me personally that you would have fired him for previous incidents.”
McGrail interrupted the exchange between Robb and Bender to advise council members “to be mindful of the fact that this remains a personnel matter and a matter in litigation,” she said. “I appreciate everybody wanting to state their case, but we want to keep it to the facts that are of record.”
Bender said charges against Estep were dropped at the district court level and noted, under the U.S. Constitution, that defendants are innocent until proven guilty.
“As of now, White Oak Borough has spent $20,000 fighting this case — and it could conceivably go on to the next step — for an officer who was not convicted of anything,” Bender said.
Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who is covering White Oak borough and McKeesport Area School District for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at email@example.com. Editor Jason Togyer contributed to this story.
Originally published April 22, 2020.