Cottonwood Heights police chief sues council member and city

The Cottonwood Heights police chief is suing the city he works for and a city council member, alleging a scheme to get him fired.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Chief Ernest Rob Russo last month, names council member Natalie “Tali” Bruce, who was elected in 2017, but claims “others acting in positions of authority with Cottonwood” were a part of the alleged conspiracy, too.

Bruce denied the accusations, saying, “It is unfortunate that someone like Russo, who has been placed in a unique position of power and trust, is using his influence to bully" others — a claim she previously made in her own, earlier legal claim.

Cottonwood Heights City Manager Tim Tingey said he was aware of Russo’s lawsuit but couldn’t comment on the ongoing litigation.

The eight-page lawsuit is scant on details but claims Russo was the subject of misconduct and harassment, of which he alleges city officials approved. It accuses Bruce of deleting or improperly redacting emails Russo had asked for in an open-records request. He said the emails were going to be used as part of a lawsuit.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported in April 2018 that Russo and Bruce have been feuding since she took office after she asked about a cost-analysis to see if contracting with Unified Police Department would save money.

She alleged that after she questioned the budget, police harassed her, including an officer parking outside her home and ignoring her when she asked him what he was doing.

The Tribune also reported then that Russo said the records request for her emails were a “legitimate exercise because he had a right to know what kind of communication the City Council member was having with the Unified Police in an attempt to dismantle the city’s police department.”

The lawsuit goes on to say that Bruce and the city, or people acting at their direction, defamed Russo.

The lawsuit specifically mentions comments posted on social media and comments made to “several” others that Russo “cannot be trusted,” and comments that “tried to dissuade individuals from associating with or otherwise respecting [Russo].”

Russo directed The Tribune to his lawyers. They didn’t return requests for comment.

Bruce, meanwhile, told The Tribune that "I intend to stand up for myself and for others.”

During a June 2 council meeting, members — including Bruce — unanimously voted to approve her request for defense and indemnity under the Utah Governmental Immunity Act, meaning the city will cover her legal defense against the lawsuit.

Before the vote, Councilman Scott Bracken said he’d heard comments that the council approving such requests was uncommon, but he remembered similar decisions in the past. Shane Topham, Cottonwood Heights city attorney, said it happens often.

"This is not an unusual situation and this is not an unusual step for the city council to take,” Topham said.

An open records request revealed that Bruce, too, has considered a lawsuit against the city. Her notice of claim letter, sent in April, seeks a $75,000 settlement.

Bruce’s attorney, Michael Young, wrote that he had found “several instances” where Russo had used his position as chief to “harass and intimidate” Bruce. He went on to allege that those examples were part of a “pattern of abuse” and “consistent with previous actions."

The letter claimed that Bruce could sue the city for violations of her rights, such as due process. It alleged that claims for negligent supervision and hiring “can also clearly be established by even the most cursory review of Russo’s history.”