A 20-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department is suing the law enforcement agency and the Police Athletic League of Philadelphia for allegedly retaliating against him when he raised concerns about asbestos in a Northeast Philadelphia recreation center.
Officer Paul Zenak claims in his lawsuit that he was subjected to harassment and intimidation by his superiors after he raised what the suit claims were “legitimate concerns” about the handling of asbestos removal and possible misuse of public and private funds.
The complaint, which was filed May 23 at Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court by attorneys Aaron J. Freiwald and Glenn A. Ellis of the firm Layser & Freiwald, states that Zenak, who has worked in both the 15th and 8th Police Districts in Northeast Philadelphia, had raised concerns that an asbestos removal contract for the Police Athletic League center at which he worked had been given to a contractor he believed to be unlicensed and unqualified, but who had close ties to the PAL leadership.
Zenak claims that he became the victim of “unlawful retaliation” by his superior officers after he raised those concerns, as well as concerns that he and dozens of neighborhood children had been exposed to asbestos at the rec center.
According to the complaint, Zenak, who was assigned as the director of the Wissinoming PAL center in 2008 after 17 years of working as a beat officer, inquired as to whether the center was safe considering its age and condition.
Zenak was assured by members of the Wissinoming United Methodist Church, which houses the center, that the asbestos in the building was confined to the boiler room, and that the prior asbestos abatement had been successful and that the building was safe for all PAL-run activities, which includes after-school sports for city youngsters.
The lawsuit states that Zenak first met contractor Joseph Bailey at the PAL center in late September 2011. Bailey had been contracted to perform remodeling work on a storage room in the building’s basement and a room designated the “homework room” for PAL youth.
The suit claims that Zenak contacted his supervisors after Bailey discovered a large asbestos-covered pipe in the homework room. Zenak informed his sergeant that the asbestos problem had been discovered, and in light of the fact that there were prior asbestos problems back in 2008, it was likely that the PAL youth inhabiting the space and Zenak had been exposed to asbestos.
Zenak further informed the head of the board of trustees for the church that the asbestos problem had been discovered.
Zenak later questioned why the church was not handling the asbestos removal issue, since it owned the building, and the officer also questioned Bailey’s qualifications to remove asbestos.
On both inquires, Zenak was told by his sergeant “not to worry about it,” the lawsuit states.
In late September 2011, Zenak was told by Bailey that it would be safe to resume activities at the center early the following month.
When he returned to the center, Zenak found the homework room “littered with dust and debris that clearly had come from the work done on the asbestos pipe covering,” the suit states.
“Officer Zenak was concerned about whether Mr. Bailey had used proper techniques to remove asbestos safely from the homework room based on how dusty and filthy the room was,” the lawsuit states.
Zenak questioned whether it really was safe to return to the room, to which his supervisor responded it was.
Still concerned, Zenak did some research on Bailey, the complaint states, after which the officer discovered the contractor was allegedly not certified to remove asbestos.
The sergeant later reassured Zenak that Bailey had the proper qualifications to handle asbestos removal.
After additional complaints by Zenak, an air quality test was performed at the premises, which revealed the center would be safe to reopen in mid November of that year, the suit states.
In late December 2011, Zenak was warned by other officers that a new sergeant was asked to “get” Zenak, presumably for the complaints he had made about the asbestos and the contractor.
Zenak then took a leave of absence from work due to breathing difficulties.
From there, the alleged harassment began.
The lawsuit goes on to list a number of alleged incidents in which Zenak was allegedly given a hard time related to the asbestos issue.
In late March of this year, Zenak received the first letters of reprimand that the officer had ever received in his two decades of public service.
“The letters of reprimand are factually unfounded and clearly are in retaliation for Officer Zenak’s efforts to get answers to questions about Mr. Bailey and the asbestos removal work Mr. Bailey supposedly performed,” the complaint states.
The lawsuit claims that the letters will damage Zenak’s reputation and hamper his ability to advance in the department.
The suit goes on to claim that Zenak was further retaliated against for his questioning of PAL’s use of public funds to compensate Bailey for the contract work.
Zenak has had to seek medical treatment for asthma-like symptoms, including a “strange” cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, the suit claims.
He has also suffered emotional distress and stress from the strain he has been under relating to the incident.
The complaint states that on April 17 of this year, PAL obtained a permit from Philadelphia’s health department’s Asbestos Control Unit for a project to remove asbestos at the Wissoniming PAL Center, with work scheduled to run from April 26 to May 26.
“Obviously, Officer Zenak’s concerns about Mr. Bailey’s qualifications to perform asbestos removal, his concerns about where PAL funds were being directed, and his concerns about whether proper measures were being taken to remove asbestos safely and appropriately, were all valid and well-founded concerns,” the lawsuit states.
The Police Athletic League of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Police Department, Wissinoming United Methodist Church and J. Bailey Builders LLC are all listed as defendants in the civil action.
The lawsuit accuses the defendants of violating Pennsylvania’s Whistleblower Act and Philadelphia’s False Claims Act.
It also contains counts of negligence, medical monitoring, civil conspiracy and recklessness.
Zenak seeks unspecified damages, in addition to attorney’s fees and litigation costs.
The case ID number is 120502508.