Marco City Council approves settlement with former police records clerk

Wrongfully accused of misconduct and burdened with the fear of losing her job, former Marco Island police records clerk Heather Comparini can wake up from her nightmare.

Nearly 22 months ago, then-Police Chief Al Schettino honed in on Comparini as the source of a leak of confidential information pertaining to a battery complaint made against then-City Manager Lee Niblock.

Despite proclaiming her innocence, the police department held what it claimed was an active investigation over her head, including at one point requesting the city's labor attorney draw up a termination letter. But in truth, records show no formal investigation was launched until recently. Police could not produce any evidence to support its claims and witness interviews showed the basis for the allegation was flawed from the start.

The city of Marco Island has agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by former police records clerk Heather Comparini.

Now, the Marco Island City Council has approved a $35,000 settlement in the civil rights lawsuit she filed against the city. 

More:Investigation into Marco Island police records clerk closed, allegations not substantiated

Comparini's lawsuit began with claims the city discriminated and retaliated against her based on her gender after she was wrongfully accused. It was recently amended to include infliction of emotional distress, public records law violations, defamation, negligent retention and supervision of Schettino and constructive dismissal, or being forced to quit due to a hostile work environment. Her last day of work was Nov. 6.

"I have had the threat of my termination hanging over my head, depending on the results of the ongoing 'leak' investigation," Comparini wrote in her letter of resignation. "Most important, this allegation and continued investigation have very publicly called my character, honesty and integrity into question. Those values are ones that I am not willing to compromise under any circumstances."

In February 2018, Schettino accused Comparini of reading a confidential document sent to a public printer and disseminating the information that eventually made its way to City Councilor Larry Honig.

Honig contacted City Attorney Alan Gabriel, who in turn called Schettino about the information. Schettino alleged Gabriel revealed the source of the leak as Comparini, an assertion Honig and Gabriel disputed. Honig has denied ever providing the source of where he learned the information, a statement which Gabriel backed when interviewed as part of the investigation. 

Comparini's only connection to the document and information in question was that she was among a large group of people with knowledge of a complaint being lodged against Niblock. 

“Sans Schettino’s assertion, Comparini’s access is the sole form of evidence potentially linking her to the allegation,” Capt. Dave Baer wrote in his investigative findings. “It is also undisputed that multiple other persons had access to the same document — thus the same inference could be made regarding those persons known, or unknown.”

More:Marco Island police records clerk files discrimination suit against city

Despite what appeared to be an imminent termination, Comparini kept her job. It was, however, not without incident. 

She said she remained terrified about losing her job as Schettino had other employees cross-train for her position. Adding to her uneasiness, her key card was also deactivated.

These actions resulted in physical and mental ailments such as skin reactions, weight loss, trouble sleeping and nightmares, her legal complaint stated.

More:Marco records clerk still intends to sue city after EEOC is unable to substantiate claims

Comparini was the only employee accused and subjected to an investigation despite multiple other employees, all men, having contact with the document.

James Deatherage, a code enforcement assistant, also tendered his resignation in solidarity with Comparini and noted her mistreatment.

Deatherage wrote he could not work "for an institution that has allowed employees to be openly treated in this fashion without any effort to rectify the situation."

The settlement amount nears the financial compensation Comparini was initially seeking. Her ask of $40,000 was initially rejected by the city, which had its counteroffer of $10,000 rejected by Comparini.