Missouri policeman told to 'tone down' his 'gayness' to be promoted lands $10.25 million settlement

A Missouri police lieutenant told to “tone down” his “gayness” if he wanted a promotion is slated to walk away with $10.25 million after a workplace discrimination lawsuit was settled Monday with St. Louis County, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. Keith Wildhaber was passed over for promotion 23 times and forced to change precincts when he filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the newspaper reported.

He was only promoted in December, months after a jury awarded him nearly $20 million in the discrimination case Oct. 23 in St. Louis County Circuit Court. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that both Wildhaber and the county benefitted from settling instead, with Wildhaber able to take home a larger portion of the settlement than the jury-alotted money. Wildhaber is set to pocket $6.5 million after paying his lawyers. 

The damning conversation that became a media focal point in coverage of the lawsuit allegedly happened in 2014 when Wildhaber was conducting a routine check at a local business, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Wildhaber said in the lawsuit the newspaper obtained that John Saracino, owner of Bartolino’s restaurant, was a member of the St. Louis County Police Department’s civilian oversight board when he explained Wildhaber’s sexuality was a hindrance to the sergeant being promoted. “The command staff has a problem with your sexuality,” Saracino said, according to the suit. “If you ever want to see a white shirt, you should tone down your gayness.” He later denied making the statement and told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “I never had a conversation like that. I would never say anything like that. That’s not me.”

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page released a statement Tuesday to KMOV. ” I want to start by recognizing Lt. Wildhaber’s experience – no one should be made to feel less than by their employer because of who they love,” Page said in the statement. “Discrimination is not the path forward for us as people, nor is it the way we should get ahead as a county.” He said his administration has made it clear that “discrimination – of any kind – will not be tolerated. We are consistently working toward policies and legislation that turn these values into action,” Page said. “This is not simply a County issue. It is the responsibility of every St. Louis County resident, Missourian, and American to be a voice for the most vulnerable in our society.” 

Although St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar announced the same day as the settlement that he would be retiring at the end of April, Page said the retirement was not part of the settlement. “The chief had confided in me even before I became county executive that he would consider retiring in 2020 so I think this has always been in his mind,” Page told KMOV. “I believe the chief wanted to make sure we moved forward and got the department on the right track after this settlement.”

Attorneys for Wildhaber said in a statement released Wednesday that their client’s “bravery and courage should be an inspiration for employees everywhere.” Attorneys Russ Riggan and Sam Moore said in the statement they’ve been representing Wildhaber in the case since April 2016, and his decision to sue the county came after he grew “tired of enduring unlawful treatment. In doing so, he endured further and even more intense discrimination and retaliation,” the attorneys said. The case has prompted new appointments to the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioner and a promotion for Wildhaber that entails him leading the department’s new Diversity and Inclusion Unit, attorneys said. “Notwithstanding these positive changes, there is more work to be done,” Riggan and Moore said. “We are hopeful that the County continues to take a hard look at its past practices, culture, and the circumstances that led to this result.”

RELATED: Jury awards $19M in discrimination suit to officer who says he was told to tone down his ‘gayness’

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