PAL cop wins asbestos lawsuit against city

Officer Paul Zenak won a civil lawsuit in which he claimed that his supervisors retaliated against him after he complained about asbestos at a Police Athletic League center in Wissinoming.

Speak­ing out: In 2011, Paul Zenak began ques­tion­ing what ap­peared to be shoddy as­bes­tos cleanup work at the Wissi­nom­ing PAL cen­ter in­side Wissi­nom­ing United Meth­od­ist Church at 4419 Comly St. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

A Phil­adelphia po­lice of­ficer has won a civil law­suit against the city in which he claimed that his su­per­visors re­tali­ated against him after he com­plained about as­bes­tos at a Po­lice Ath­let­ic League cen­ter in Wissi­nom­ing.

On Fri­day, a Com­mon Pleas Court jury awar­ded Of­ficer Paul Zenak his old PAL job back and the res­tor­a­tion of months of ex­pired sick time, as well as re­im­burse­ment for his med­ic­al and leg­al ex­penses. Judge John Milton Younge will de­term­ine the spe­cif­ic amount of the award after hear­ing ad­di­tion­al testi­mony later this month.

A City Hall spokes­man, Mark Mc­Don­ald, said that city at­tor­neys are re­view­ing the case and con­sid­er­ing “a num­ber of po­ten­tial ap­pel­late is­sues,” but had no fur­ther com­ment.

Zenak’s law­yer, Aaron Freiwald, called the case a clas­sic ex­ample of re­tali­ation against a whis­tleblower. Zenak, a 44-year-old mar­ried fath­er of two from the North­east, was ap­poin­ted as dir­ect­or of Wissi­nom­ing PAL in 2008 after about two dec­ades of dis­tin­guished ser­vice with the po­lice force.

“This is an of­ficer who lit­er­ally had not a blem­ish on his re­cord in twenty years,” Freiwald said.

Things changed in early fall 2011 after Zenak began ques­tion­ing his po­lice su­per­visors about what ap­peared to be shoddy as­bes­tos cleanup work at the Wissi­nom­ing PAL cen­ter in­side Wissi­nom­ing United Meth­od­ist Church at 4419 Comly St. PAL rents space from the church.

Ac­cord­ing to Freiwald, PAL had hired a con­tract­or to ren­ov­ate the prop­erty. With work in pro­gress, Zenak no­ticed what ap­peared to be mold on some over­head pipe in­su­la­tion and asked the con­tract­or about it. The con­tract­or iden­ti­fied the omin­ous sub­stance not as mold, but rather ex­posed as­bes­tos. PAL paid the con­tract­or to re­move the haz­ard­ous ma­ter­i­al, Freiwald said.

Af­ter­ward, Zenak re­turned to the PAL cen­ter to find what ap­peared to be as­bes­tos particles strewn across the floor. Fear­ing for his own safety and that of dozens of kids, Zenak pressed the is­sue. He dis­covered that the con­tract­or was not li­censed by the city to re­move as­bes­tos and that PAL was pay­ing for wi­de­scale church renov­a­tions, al­though it didn’t own the prop­erty and only oc­cu­pied a por­tion of it.

“PAL had budgeted three thou­sand dol­lars to per­form re­pairs on the (PAL) room and it bal­looned in­to a 22,000-dol­lar con­tract when all was said and done,” Freiwald said.

In ad­di­tion, the PAL pro­gram paid the same con­tract­or to re­move as­bes­tos from the Ox­ford Circle PAL, ac­cord­ing to Freiwald. The PAL pro­gram is par­tially fun­ded by city tax dol­lars and par­tially by cor­por­ate and private dona­tions.

By spring 2012, Zenak’s per­son­nel file was get­ting thick­er with un­flat­ter­ing per­form­ance re­ports. His po­lice su­per­visors wrote him up for fail­ing to sub­mit pa­per­work and be­cause “he wasn’t run­ning enough pro­grams at the cen­ter,” said Freiwald, who claims the al­leg­a­tions were bogus.

“All the evid­ence they put forth to sup­port their cause was lack­ing cred­ib­il­ity,” Freiwald said.

In April 2012, Zenak and his com­plaints were a top­ic at a com­mit­tee meet­ing of PAL’s ci­vil­ian board of dir­ect­ors. Dur­ing the au­dio-re­cor­ded ses­sion, Zenak’s su­per­visor ac­cused the of­ficer of fab­ric­at­ing the as­bes­tos is­sue to cov­er his own poor job per­form­ance. When the board asked the su­per­visor why Zenak was still in charge of the PAL cen­ter, the su­per­visor replied “we’re work­ing on that,” ac­cord­ing to Freiwald.

Days after the board meet­ing, Zenak went on leave from the po­lice de­part­ment, cit­ing health and emo­tion­al prob­lems caused by his work situ­ation. He used ac­crued sick time.

“He went on leave be­cause he was afraid for his job,” Freiwald said. 

Zenak filed the law­suit in May 2012 and re­turned to work a few months ago on re­stric­ted duty after his wife was laid off from her job with the city’s pub­lic schools, ac­cord­ing to the at­tor­ney. 

The city has tested the Wissi­nom­ing PAL cen­ter for haz­ard­ous ma­ter­i­als with neg­at­ive res­ults, but Freiwald con­tends that the test­ing was “in­con­clus­ive” and didn’t rule out the pos­sib­il­ity of con­tam­in­a­tion. 

The at­tor­ney has filed a class ac­tion law­suit on be­half of the kids and their par­ents against the city seek­ing pay­ment for med­ic­al screen­ing and care re­lated to as­bes­tos ex­pos­ure.

Po­lice Com­mis­sion­er Charles Ram­sey was among the wit­nesses who test­i­fied at the Zenak tri­al. Ac­cord­ing to Freiwald, Ram­sey said that the po­lice de­part­ment’s In­tern­al Af­fairs Bur­eau is in­vest­ig­at­ing the PAL su­per­visors in­volved in hir­ing the un­li­censed as­bes­tos con­tract­or. No crim­in­al charges have been filed. 

Mean­while, Freiwald said, since Zenak’s com­plaints, the de­part­ment has in­sti­tuted tight­er reg­u­la­tions on how the PAL pro­gram spends money and the ap­prov­al pro­cess for con­tract­ors.

“Now, (Zenak) is re­spec­ted and PAL was im­proved,” Freiwald said. ••

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