Lawsuit: Manassas Park police chief led intimidation campaign

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A lawsuit heading to trial next month alleges that Manassas Park Police Chief Mario Lugo led an intimidation campaign against a former officer and ultimately forced him to resign due to a personal dispute that began over commemorative badges for the 2017 presidential inauguration.

Regan Miller, an officer with the department since 2007, is asking the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia for more than $3 million in compensatory and punitive damages, naming Lugo and Manassas Park Police Department Maj. Trevor Reinhart in a lawsuit claiming wrongful termination and malicious prosecution. First filed almost a year ago, the suit is currently slated for a jury trial beginning May 4.

Lawyers for Miller – who achieved the ranks of detective, sergeant and lastly first lieutenant with the department – say in a filing that his run-ins with department brass began over commemorative police badges celebrating the presidential inauguration in 2017. According to the suit, Miller was asked by the department to design the badges. After they were approved, Miller ordered an extra set of badges for personal use, which he hung in his basement alongside his law enforcement memorabilia.

Lugo, who at the time was a captain in the department, told Miller that he wasn’t authorized to own the badges, the suit alleges, and demanded the badges be turned over. Miller did so, but a back-and-forth between the two ensued, with Miller threatening to file a grievance with the Fraternal Order of Police, a threat that the filing says angered Lugo. At the time, the suit says, Miller was told that Lugo was being groomed to be the next police chief.

Later in 2017, the suit alleges, another officer who was close to Lugo crashed his unmarked squad car and failed to report it. Miller, despite being the on-duty supervisor at the time of the crash, didn’t find out about it until the following month. After Miller made an inquiry about the vehicle, Lugo allegedly demanded to know how Miller found out about the accident and who else knew about it. The filing says that Lugo went on to help the officer cover it up, “concerned about his own exposure.”

From there, the suit alleges a string of retaliatory actions aimed at Miller, including disabling his ATF e-Trace and Accurint accounts, which are used for running gun checks and research, respectively. Miller also claims that Lugo publicly called him a “rat” for assisting an officer in another jurisdiction with a grievance before initiating a series of administrative grievances against Miller.

Miller was ultimately terminated in 2019 for failure “to supervise a proper investigation into a reported larceny incident” and accessing a police database to conduct “queries on a person that were not for valid law enforcement investigation,” according to City Manager Laszlo Palko’s letter denying Miller’s appeal to the city government.

Initially, Miller’s lawsuit named Palko and the city itself as defendants in the case, but Judge Leonie Brinkema dismissed the complaints against them while allowing the claims against Lugo and Reinhart to proceed to trial. Palko and Lugo both declined to comment for this article.

Miller was ultimately reinstated by the department but at a lower rank and pay.

“As a result of the open and continuous threats of retaliation, including additional discipline, demotion, deception, coercion, emotional harm, and unbearable treatment, suffered at the hands of Defendants … Officer Miller was forced to resign on July 20, 2020,” the lawsuit says.

Reinhart is accused in the lawsuit of filing wrongful and malicious criminal charges against Miller for the same incident. The commonwealth’s attorney’s office ultimately approved one charge for computer invasion of privacy against Miller in 2020, but it was ultimately dismissed by special prosecutor Scott Hook “with prejudice,” which means it cannot be refiled, according to the suit.

Attorneys for Reinhart and Lugo asked Brinkema to dismiss the claims for a summary judgment to avoid trial, but their motion was denied, clearing the way for the May jury trial. In motions to dismiss, attorney Heather Bardot – who is representing Lugo and Reinhart – said there are no facts to substantiate Miller’s claims. She declined InsideNoVa’s request for comment.

Clyde Findley, Miller’s attorney, told InsideNoVa, “We view this as an abuse of police power against one of their fellow police officers just because he stood up against their abuses of power.”

Findley continued, “They had no probable cause to file their criminal complaint against him, and they did it anyway. And no one has been disciplined for that, and it’s a mess.”

The suit claims that since resigning, Miller has applied for work at five different law enforcement departments, but he has yet to receive any offers because of the criminal charge against him and “obstruction by the Defendants.” He’s also suffered from anxiety and “debilitating depression,” according to the suit. As a result, he’s seeking nearly $1 million in lost salary, retirement benefits and hazard pay, as well as $2.5 million in punitive damages.

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