Metro-East News

Brombolich files suit over expenditure documents; says city manager targeted her

In this July 13, 2015, file photo, Councilwoman Cheryl Brombolich listens during a City Council meeting.
In this July 13, 2015, file photo, Councilwoman Cheryl Brombolich listens during a City Council meeting. News-Democrat file photo

An elected official who, city documents show, used city credit cards and tax-free accounts for her personal use, has filed a federal lawsuit against Collinsville, as well as her former boss and a former city councilman, who she says compiled and distributed those documents to make her look bad.

City Councilwoman Cheryl Brombolich, who filed the suit Monday in federal court in East St. Louis, alleges she was “forced” to resign as a city employee in 2014 and was recently embarrassed by the release of “private documents” because she was critical of her boss, former City Manager Scott Williams.

Williams is alleged in the suit to have aided personal friends in his capacity as city manager, including not disciplining a department head after a complaint of sexual harassment was filed against the individual by an employee who Brombolich supervised at the time.

Brombolich alleges that after she complained about Williams’ performance as city manager, he, along with former City Councilman Mike Tognarelli, sought to discredit her with documents both related and unrelated to her employment.

Williams and Tognarelli declined to comment Tuesday. Brombolich’s attorney, Jack Daugherty, said he and his client would not publicly discuss the pending litigation.

The documents were assembled by Williams in an investigative file. Included are 131 text messages in which Brombolich begs Finance Director Tamara Ammann not to tell Williams about her personal use of a tax-exempt city account, claiming it was just a mistake that Brombolich later said she wanted to inform Williams about first.

The suit states that Brombolich’s mortgage paperwork, along with documents relating to her family and investigations by law enforcement that did not result in any charges against Brombolich, which were included in the file, are private.

The file was released to the News-Democrat in February after the city fought for eight months not to provide it. The BND filed suit and Madison County Associate Judge Don Flack ruled the documents it contained are public records.

During her employment with the city, Brombolich held a dual role as director of operations and city clerk. She was placed on administrative leave on Sept. 9, 2014, while Williams investigated her use of city money and decided whether to fire her. She’d made at least 20 purchases over a decade, all of which she repaid, and had been warned twice about her continued personal use of city funds. At least once, Brombolich tried to avoid disclosure of the practice, the documents showed.

Brombolich announced her resignation on Sept. 15, 2014, and was able under state law to save her pension. She later successfully ran for City Council in the April 2015 election.

Making personal purchases — and possibly avoiding payment of sales taxes and interest — with city credit cards and accounts is prohibited by city policy. Brombolich, however, has argued that it is a practice other city employees have engaged in as well. A BND review of city credit card purchases found that six other department heads used their cards and reimbursed the city, four on repeated occasions, over a four-year period.

While the practice violated city policy, there was no criminal investigation of Brombolich’s use of city funds for personal purchases.

Brombolich’s suit is against the city, Williams and Tognarelli. It asks for compensatory damages of at least $225,000 for the loss of income she experienced after she was allegedly forced by Williams to resign. The suit also seeks an unspecified amount in punitive damages. The suit states she has suffered “severe emotional distress, public embarrassment and unwarranted damage to her public reputation” as a result of the file being made public.

The suit states that Brombolich resigned because Williams allegedly “intended to gratuitously humiliate” her by asking for her termination during a public City Council meeting despite not needing the City Council’s consent to fire her. Williams was Brombolich’s direct supervisor in her role as director of operations, but clerks are appointed by the mayor.

Brombolich believes her public firing would have been retaliation for her criticism of Williams’ handling of a complaint of sexual harassment and intimidation against his personal friend, according to the suit.

One of the employees who Brombolich supervised in the clerk’s office allegedly complained in June 2014 that a department head made unwanted sexual advances, including physical touching, and threatened the individual’s family and other employees. The suit alleges that the department head did not experience “any adverse employment consequence.”

Brombolich’s suit does not name the department head.

Her suit also accuses Williams of altering the results of a civil service exam to benefit a personal friend. Brombolich alleges that she reported the matter to the mayor and the city’s legal councel, but she was “shunned as a whistle-blower” and fired.

The city’s legal counsel, Steve Giacoletto, and Collinsville Mayor John Miller did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The suit alleges that Williams began compiling the investigative file that has since been released by the city after Brombolich began her run for the City Council because if she were elected, she would be able to vote on Williams’ continued employment.

At the July 13 meeting in which the council considered his contract, Brombolich and two other council members voted against its renewal, and Williams was fired.

Brombolich, the suit states, was exercising her First Amendment rights in discussing the allegations and in running for public office.

The suit alleges that Tognarelli worked with Williams to compile the information and to distribute it to discredit her despite having “no reason to participate in any way with the handling of any personnel matter” as a council member and despite having been advised by Giacoletto not to share the documents given to him by Williams.

“...Williams and Tognarelli abused their public office for their own personal and political benefit by compiling and distributing private documents relating to (Brombolich),” the suit states.

The file portrays Brombolich in a “false light,” the suit alleges, because Williams included “only the most unflattering and private documents” about her. The suit states that, for example, Williams “intentionally excluded” any documents relating to other employees’ use of city credit cards in the same time frame.

According to the suit, compiling these documents was “not reasonably related to any of (Williams’) job duties as city manager.”

The suit requests a jury trial.

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat