Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 10, 2009

Leelanau officers file federal lawsuit


SUTTONS BAY -- Five police officers allege in a federal lawsuit that Leelanau Sheriff Mike Oltersdorf broke the law and invaded their privacy by eavesdropping on sheriff's department phone lines.

Leelanau sgts. James Kiessel and Michael Lamb, Leelanau deputies Mike Bankey and Duane Wright, and Grand Traverse Deputy Anthony Romanowski contend Oltersdorf recorded and listened to phone conversations on what employees believed to be private lines on several instances dating to 2006.

"At all times relevant, plaintiffs as well as most ... deputies of the Leelanau sheriff's office assumed and relied upon the fact that at least one, if not all, lines were available for private use," the suit reads.

Kiessel and Lamb in January 2008 filed a complaint with the FBI about the phone recording practice, leading to a Michigan State Police investigation. The Michigan Attorney General's office later determined sheriff's officials did not break the law because sheriff's employees had no reasonable expectation of privacy.

The suit also contends Oltersdorf used recordings of conversations critical of him and Undersheriff Scott Wooters to intimidate and discipline officers and retaliated against those who publicly spoke out against the phone recording practice.

The seven-count suit, recently filed in U.S. District Court, was prepared by Michael Dettmer, William Rastetter and Michael C. Grant of the Traverse City firm Olson Bzdok & Howard. It names Oltersdorf, Wooters and the department as defendants.

Romanowski was included in the suit because Wooters allegedly listened to, and expressed displeasure of, a critical conversation between Romanowski and former Leelanau Deputy Bruce Beeker in December 2007, according to the suit.

Oltersdorf in June said he ended the phone recording practice. He deferred comment on the suit to John McGlinchey, an attorney for the county. McGlinchey dismissed the allegations.

"My own personal opinion, I don't see merit to any of it," he said. "A lot of these problems I thought had been resolved in-house."

Kiessel and Bankey in June wrote a letter published by the Record-Eagle that sharply criticized the phone practice and deemed it illegal. Oltersdorf waited several months and in mid-December suspended both for a week without pay for falsely accusing him of illegal activities.

The suit also alleges Oltersdorf passed Bankey and Wright over for promotions and removed Lamb and Kiessel from the department command structure in Oltersdorf's absence.