CINCINNATI (FOX19) - A Cincinnati FBI agent is accused in newly filed court records of violating the constitutional rights of a police officer, setting off a chain of events that ultimately cost the officer his job.
The FBI agent, Matt DeBlauw, acted “improperly” to obtain then-Cincinnati Police Officer’s Jason Cotterman’s military medical records and then “improperly” turned them over to a police internal investigator, Michele Longworth, Cotterman alleged in an amended lawsuit Thursday.
Longworth, the suit contends, did not provide any documentation to the FBI to support her request for information and did not use a subpoena, a warrant or authorization from Cotterman.
She then turned “the illicitly received records” over to the city and CPD, who “used them to trump up a reason to administratively discharge” Cotterman from the Cincinnati Police Department in 2016, according to the suit.
"It’s extremely unusual that an FBI agent would think that it would be appropriate to use his power to dig up records and to feed them to somebody in the internal affairs of the Cincinnati Police Department just because they asked for them, said Cotterman’s lawyer, Robert Croskery, in an interview.
“Moreover, it is disquieting because there’s nothing more dangerous than an FBI agent with that federal power behind him digging into the personal affairs of Americans. We have that on a national level right now. It’s a national controversy. It’s also something that’s extremely important to all of us. We need to be able to trust everybody in the FBI to do things according to the Constitution of the United States."
Cotterman first sued the city, Police Chief Eliot Isaac and two “John Does” in 2017, more than a year after he was pushed out via a medical separation.
Now, after several police and city officials have been questioned under oath during depositions in the case, Cotterman has named the “John Does" he and his attorney say “aided and abetted” in the violation of his civil rights.
Cotterman also is seeking a so-called Bivens action against DeBlauw.
Bivens is named after a 1971 Supreme Court decision that allowed people to sue federal officers for damages in federal court for violating the U.S. Constitution.
The U.S. Department of Military Affairs VA Records Management Center sent Cotterman a letter on Aug. 7 that FOX19 NOW has obtained which states: “In reference to your request for verification that the VA did not release your records to any outside inquiries: Let this be official notification that according to our records, your Service Treatment Records were received by VA Management Center on June 20, 2000 upon retirement by the Service Department and was never requested or released to any outside inquiries.”
We reached out to the Cincinnati office of the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington D.C. We were told the FBI does not comment on pending litigation.
FOX19 NOW also sought comment from spokesmen for the city and Cincinnati Police Department, as well as the city solicitor. We did not receive a single response back.
DeBlauw was the lead FBI agent on the agency’s high profile case recently against Newtown businessman Doug Evans. A jury convicted Evans of minoring contracting fraud that got Evans Landscaping millions in state and city demotion jobs. No sentencing date has been set.
He was contacted by Longworth after a referral from a former CPD officer who now is an FBI agent in Chicago, and she asked DeBlauw for military information on Cotterman, according to her Sept. 24 deposition in the case filed into the court record Thursday.
Longworth received only a brown envelope from DeBlauw containing Cotterman’s military records, including his medical ones, and the information was subsequently circulated within CPD including to the internal investigation section, psychologist and command staff, according to the suit.
She said in her deposition she told DeBlauw she wanted to know if it was possible to obtain records to confirm if Cotterman was a sniper or had been in Special Operations while he served in the U.S. Marines to see if he was an expert marksman, according to her deposition.
“I thought it would be relevant to see if he could follow through of the threats that he had made against members of the Police Department,” she said in her deposition. She also said during questioning by Cotterman’s attorney she did not know what Special Ops was.
Longworth insisted in her deposition she sought “military records,” not medical records, and that’s what she received from DeBlauw.
Once she picked Cotterman’s military records up from DeBlauw, she said she turned them over to a supervisor in CPD’s Internal Investigations Section but couldn’t recall which one, her deposition states.
Longworth has been an officer with CPD since June 2000, according to her personnel file.
She worked in Districts 5 and 3 before she spent nine years in Personal Crimes Unit, where she was a veteran rape squad investigator known to be tenacious in the pursuit of truth and passionate about perfection in her work, according to job evaluation.
She was transferred to internal investigations in Sept. 2015.
Longworth has received positive job performance reviews from supervisors and noted for being “loyal to the Unit and, most importantly, the Department.”
“In the 2016 year, IIU has been privy to several criminal investigations where confidentiality is critical,” Captain Craig Gregoire wrote in her review of that time period. “By maintaining her relationships with outside resources and using these resources to facilitate IIUs goals, a cornerstone of the Department’s mission has been attained through investigative integrity.”
Cotterman job loss came after he was criminally charged and then acquitted along with a sergeant in relation to a 2015 off-duty car crash of another officer, then-Sgt. Andrew Mitchell.
Cotterman’ lawsuit alleges he was maliciously prosecuted for a 2015 traffic case he handled involving another Cincinnati police officer but was acquitted of.
He contends they have "a policy of punishing, reprimanding and otherwise retaliating against officers that do not toe the line and go along with” their public version of events.
Cotterman and Sgt. Richard Sulfsted were accused by then-Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell and other police and city officials of covering up for Mitchell.
At the time, Cotterman was a successful officer with a solid service record, good evaluations and several commendations including a MADD award nomination, according to his lawsuit.
He responded to and investigated Mitchell’s crash just before 5 a.m. on West McMicken Avenue.
Mitchell didn't show signs of impairment, according to the suit.
Cotterman wasn't told at the time that another officer, who was on scene but remained in his cruiser and didn't approach Cotterman, received a statement from a third party witness who indicated Mitchell appeared to have been driving impaired several blocks earlier, the suit reads.
The witness's story was later found to not be credible, the suit states, and Cotterman behaved properly.
“There are literally dozens of incidents involving police officers who have had one car incidents and not been cited, including Chief Eliot Isaacs (sic) and the senior police officer on the scene who failed to share information,” the suit reads.
On April 29, 2015, the city of Cincinnati brought Cotterman to be read his rights to remain silent, or to be "Mirandized" for a potential criminal charge, the lawsuit reads.
As part of that process, there are interrogation rooms that contain audio and video recording equipment.
Prior to entering those rooms, a police sergeant told Cotterman, according to the suit, "it is in your best interest to go along with the Administration's version of events."
Cotterman invoked his Fifth Amendment rights.
The city then suspended Cotterman’s police powers for “Fitness for Duty” and two days later, moved him from District 5 to District 2.
"Officer Cotterman became angry at the unfair turn of events, and an OIC for Internal ordered (him) to begin seeing the CPD psychologist on a weekly basis," the suit reads.
After Cotterman was charged, he considered it “politically motivated, grossly unfair and frivolous,” according to the suit. It also came as he was “hounded” by the media and while his wife was in the midst of a high-risk pregnancy. He began to use his hundreds of hours off he had banked to deal with the situation and stress.
Around July 7, 2015, he saw the psychologist, James Daum, who put him on administrative leave.
Cotterman told FOX19 NOW in a September 2017 interview he had a breakdown over the stress of it all and then tried to commit suicide in October 2015.
He said he held a gun to his head and fired it as he stood alongside the Great Miami River.
The gun misfired, he said.
“My entire being was completely crushed. The foundations I built myself on were destroyed,” Cotterman recalled in 2017.
He said he emptied his weapon of ammunition and got rid of it in the water.
Cotterman and Sulfsted were ultimately acquitted of misdemeanor charges of dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice in a bench trial in which they didn’t even have to present a defense.
Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Josh Berkowitz, who presided over the case, concluded it was based on opinion and conjecture.
He also noted the prosecution’s own witnesses, including CPD"s traffic section commander at the time, Lt. Bruce Hoffbauer, testified the allegations shouldn’t have resulted in criminal charges.
“I cannot, in good conscience," the judge said in court in March 2016, “say that I’m firmly convinced of the truth of the charges.”
During the trial, an internal affairs investigator read several text messages exchanged between Cotterman and Sulfsted after the crash and charges being filed against them.
Cotterman jokingly texted in one message he was "worried I'm going to kill someone."
He also talked about seeing the police department psychologist, Daum.
“I’m really thinking about Dauming out,” Cotterman wrote in a text message read aloud in court.
Cotterman texted about another officer, James Pike, who responded to the crash and, according to testimony, didn’t get involved.
“Part of me just feels like cold cocking Pike in the jaw when he opens his mouth at roll call and dragging him outside,” Cotterman said in a text message, police records show.
Cotterman also texted: “I’m worried I’m going to kill someone," “Maybe I will strap on my machete at roll call,” “Maybe a spear,” and in reference to Pike and two other officers: “I can’t be around them, I feel like quick-drawing my blade and going to town," police records state.
FOX 19 NOW has previously asked Cotterman about the text messages and some of his former fellow officers referring to him as “Crazy Cotterman.”
Cotterman and his attorney said Thursday there were no threats to members of the police department.
He said he and Sulfsted were venting frustrations at being accused of crimes they didn’t commit, and the judge in the case agreed during the trial.
After the acquittal, however, the city, Cotterman was administratively discharged within just six weeks, his lawsuit states.
"The city did so by improperly obtaining, and then using, ancient military records," the suit states, adding that he did not "provide any valid authorization" for the city or police department to obtain the records.
The records, which the lawsuit says have inaccuracies, include details about a “very traumatic hazing incident” that occurred to Cotterman while he was Marine, Croskery told FOX19 NOW in 2017.
Cotterman received an honorable discharge from the military after two years, court records show.
He said in an interview with FOX19 NOW Thursday he wants to be reinstated to CPD and have his reputation restored.
“This entire experience has been very trying, very traumatic for both myself and my family as a whole. I’ve had multiple jobs since then,” he said. "I’ve sold cars, I’ve worked construction, I’ve worked for the postal service, for ups. I’ve kind of bounced around. It’s kind of hard to find an occupation with my skill set outside of law enforcement and this entire experience has blackballed me from being able to get onto any other department or even a security company
“My personal and professional reputation has been completely destroyed,” he continued. "It’s hard to quantify it in words, the feeling that we’ve had to go through knowing what the department and what the FBI now have done not only to myself but to my family. The hurt, the pain that’s caused all for somebody’s personal malice against myself and against other people.
"None of us asked for any this to happen. But every time I look at my children, I absolutely have to see this through. I have absolutely zero choice when it comes to quitting or backing down.”
He also is upset that he said he discovered during discovery for his case Longworth did a search warrant in November 2015 on his Facebook account "during which there was nothing concerning on it, but she downloaded a few pictures of my wife from our honeymoon in 2012 and when we first started dating in 2011…..before this incident occurred.
“When my wife discovered through the discovery process, she saw the pictures that were downloaded by the city and put into the case file. My wife was taken aback in shock, very upset, very hurt, wondering why she’s getting drug into this and is our family getting drug into this. Are they downloading pictures of my children?
“The thing that I naturally wonder is has the department done this to other people through the same means and never informed them? The department never served me with a copy of the search warrant as they’re supposed to. I never knew about them accessing my account until afterwards through the discovery process of this lawsuit."
He said he wanted to be a police officer since he was 13 years old.
"It’s what I was born to do. It’s what I excelled at. It’s what I trained most of my life for and it’s how I identified myself,” he said. "This entire experience shook that to the core. Now I’m sitting here struggling to make ends meet and not always making it. Everything that I invested myself in for more than a decade was completely thrown out the window because I wouldn’t go along with a certain version of events.”
The other two officers involved in the traffic case with Cotterman remain at CPD today.
Mitchell, who is now a lieutenant, pleaded guilty in December 2015 to two traffic violations, failure to maintain reasonable control of a motor vehicle and not wearing a seat belt on March 22, 2015.
He was ordered to pay a $315 fine and returned to active duty.
A misdemeanor count of reckless operation of a motor vehicle was dropped.
Sulfsted was given a stern 56-hour suspension but an arbitrator later overturned that, calling it “unwarranted.”
The arbitrator questioned and criticized Blackwell’s reasons for having criminal charges filed despite information to the contrary, saying he “exercised extremely poor judgment" in a “very bad decision," a copy of the arbitrator’s report shows.
Blackwell was fired in September 2015 due to unprecedented low morale in the department and the general sentiment within it that his leadership style created a work environment of hostility and retaliation, then-City Manager Harry Black wrote in a memo to City Council the day Blackwell’s termination was announced.
Other reasons cited at the time in the memo included issuing overtime against proper procedure and interfering with internal investigations and internal audits and investigations including Jones'; and acting in a retaliatory manner toward employees, including command staff.
Mitchell had arrested a then-Cincinnati police officer, Kevin Jones, after Jones was accused of participating in a fight while off duty at Dynasty’s Lounge in Mt. Airy in September 2014.
Jones’ internal investigation file was cited as one that Blackwell had not approved or returned for several months to a commander trying to manage open internal cases, prompting her to repeatedly inquire about it and delaying resolution of Jones’ administrative case, city records show.
The city later quietly changed Blackwell’s termination to a resignation amid a $255,000 settlement.
Blackwell is scheduled to be deposed next in Cotterman’s lawsuit, on Friday, and now his attorney wants to depose the FBI agent.
So far, Cotterman’s attorney said several of the officers who have been deposed appear to have memory issues.
“I am impressed overall that the Cincinnati police officers generally want to do the right thing and they want to protect the department. We often have cases where there is - I’ll just put it this way - selective amnesia,” he said. "I would not go so far as to label people as deliberately misleading, but I will say that there has been an awful lot of officers that don’t remember or did not track down, for example, where these records came from. That’s a key to this case.
“Through this entire case, I’ve been asking officers ‘have you ever seen a case where these kinds of records for a Cincinnati police officer have appeared in their file?' And the answer universally has been ‘no.’ None of these superior officers that saw the records appear to have much curiosity as to where these records came from or where they got there. So that’s a fairly good example of this selective amnesia that I am talking about or possibly the right word might be deliberate ignorance.”
The current police chief, Eliot Isaac, is among those who were deposed.
“I have to say that Chief Eliot Isaac struck me as not having known about what had gone on prior to this. He struck me as a person who I think will be fair and will probably be willing, once he has the full facts, to give Jason Cotterman another shot, as he should," Croskery said.
“I think one of the key people we deposed was Harry Black, the former city manager. And Harry Black, in his deposition, absolutely owned what he said in his report. That is that a former Cincinnati police chief engaged in a lot of favoritism, that there were favors that were going out to people that were in his own sphere of influence, that he used an extra official chain of command, that is, his own friends would be putting out information, people that were special favor to the chief, and he was punishing people that he didn’t like and, unfortunately, Jason Cotterman seems to have gotten caught up….in a situation where he did not ticket someone that a former chief thought should have been ticketed."