Patrick Lakamp, Buffalo News, December 15, 2011
Four years ago, Gregory M. Kwiatkowski was becoming a familiar name in Buffalo–but not in a way he wanted his two daughters or fellow police officers to see or read in news reports.
The 47-year-old recently retired Buffalo police lieutenant said he saw his name dragged through the mud–despite a highly decorated career since joining the police force in 1990–by those he said falsely accused him of punching another police officer and brutally beating suspects.
In the last two weeks, for the first time, Kwiatkowski offered his version of events as he testified against attorney Anthony L. Pendergrass, the man he called responsible for his portrayal in news reports in 2007.
Kwiatkowski now awaits a judge’s decision in his defamation lawsuit against Pendergrass, the lawyer who represented former Police Officer Cariol J. Horne at her disciplinary hearing for jumping on Kwiatkowski’s back when he struggled with a suspect in November 2006.
Kwiatkowski sued Pendergrass for what he said on a radio show, in interviews with reporters and at a public meeting–not for what the lawyer said about him in Horne’s legal proceedings, where he had legal protection for his comments.
Kwiatkowski already won his defamation lawsuit against Horne earlier this year when the fired police officer did not show up in court to defend herself.
He said testifying at his defamation suit gave him the chance to tell his side. A few times, during questioning by his lawyer, Kwiatkowski choked up and fought back tears on the witness stand. At other times, during Pendergrass’ cross-examination, he and Pendergrass had testy exchanges.
Kwiatkowski’s suit alleges that Pendergrass, at a September 2007 public meeting, said Kwiatkowski beat a suspect “with brass knuckles while he was handcuffed,” according to the Challenger, a Buffalo newspaper with a predominantly black readership.
“I’ve never had a pair of brass knuckles in my entire life,” Kwiatkowski testified last week in court.
Pendergrass told a radio talk show host in 2007 that Kwiatkowski “administered a brutal beating to an individual” during an arrest in a South Buffalo bar, Kwiatkowski said.
“Absolutely never happened,” Kwiatkowski said during questioning by his lawyer, Andrew P. Fleming.
In a 2007 article about Horne, the Challenger quoted Pendergrass as saying Kwiatkowski “punched her so hard he knocked loose a dental bridge that she has had for over 10 years,” according to Kwiatkowski’s lawsuit.
“I never struck Officer Horne,” Kwiatkowski said in court.
In a 2007 Buffalo News article, Pendergrass said Horne “saved the life of a suspect who was already in handcuffs and was being choked out by Officer Greg Kwiatkowski,” according to the defamation suit.
“Absolutely deny,” Kwiatkowski said in court when asked whether he choked the suspect.
At an October 2007 meeting covered by television stations, Pendergrass told the audience that Kwiatkowski was “in the top four in the Police Department as far as complaints lodged against him,” according to the lawsuit.
Kwiatkowski said he had never been brought up on charges by the department when Pendergrass said that.
The former officer said he tried to shield his school-age daughters from the news coverage of him. He said he tried explaining to them that what they had heard or read others saying about him was not true.
“When you’re dealing with children, anything they see on TV they think is true, especially the news,” he said. They had looked up to him as a hero, proud of his police service. “I can never get that back,” he said.
Kwiatkowski said he saw their doubts, fueled by articles about him, like one in the Black Star News website headlined “Buffalo’s anti-black cop.”
In court this week, Pendergrass contended that Kwiatkowski did not prove that he made the comments to the reporters or that they are false.
And even if they are false, Pendergrass said, Kwiatkowski must overcome a tougher standard.
“He hasn’t proved I knew it was false at the time I said it,” Pendergrass told Marshall. “These charges have not been proven with clear and convincing clarity.” What’s more, “a plaintiff who is a public official cannot recover for a defamatory falsehood unless he or she proves actual malice,” he added.
During a deposition before trial, Pendergrass said he read news accounts of Kwiatkowski’s actions and also talked with witnesses and potential witnesses about what they saw.
“They began to paint a picture of this police officer as being brutal and racist, and they began to paint a picture that he was very high in terms of the number of complaints that citizens sought to lodge against him.”
Pendergrass, at the 2008 deposition, did not back away from his criticism of Kwiatkowski. “I believe not only is he a racist, but my belief is he’s a coward, as well,” Pendergrass said. However, he said he misspoke about the brass knuckles, saying that it was another officer who had them.
Fleming said Pendergrass had political motives for smearing Kwiatkowski. Pendergrass “hit the publicity Lotto” with the Horne case, and he sought to build up his name in a campaign for city judge, Fleming said.
What Pendergrass said of Kwiatkowski, the lawyer said, was “nothing short of hate speech, over and over and over again.”
“We have demonstrated more than malice,” Fleming said. “We demonstrated hate.”