It's been more than two weeks since Scott Peters, 56, was fired from his job as police chief of Italy in Ellis County, but the controversy that has erupted in the small north-central Texas town is far from over.
Peters has obtained a lawyer who has mounted a vigorous defense, posting on Facebook that his client was fired because "he refused to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing by a council member and a family member of another city official."
Mayor Bryant Cockran, 46, on the other hand, maintains the former chief was let go because of "insubordination."
"I met with him with regard to his insubordination — not just me, but I had my city administrator along with me," Cockran said. "In the midst of that meeting, his character and his response in that particular meeting was the same as it had been on two other occasions that I had met with the two of them together, and I specifically asked my city administrator to have him do a specific task and he didn't do it, and he looked my administrator in the face and said, 'Well, what you gonna do about it?' So, after that, I made a decision to terminate him because he wasn't, in my eyes, actually willing to be a team player."
The Daily Light obtained a copy of the termination letter, dated Aug. 30, which reads in part, "On August 26, 2019, during a meeting with me regarding your performance in general and your failure to follow my prior direction to obtain council approval for your proposed secondary employment, you became visibly angry, raised your voice and challenged Mr. Holden's attempt to counsel you by stating, 'What are you going to do about it?' Unfortunately, your misconduct appears to be part of an ongoing pattern of conduct. Over the last several months you have been counseled by me or Mr. Holden on multiple occasions about various performance issues and each time you have lost your temper, raised your voice and behaved in an unprofessional and insubordinate manner. Recently, you also became angry and raised your voice at members of the City Council during a meeting to discuss your performance."
Peters agrees he squared off with City Administrator Shawn Holden, but that it shouldn't have been a fireable offense.
"I said, 'What you gonna do to me because you're not my boss,' and they took that as insubordination... (When) you look up insubordination, I can't be insubordinate to somebody that's my equal," Peters said. "The insubordination was against Shawn Holden, and that's what the letter says. He (Cockran) has even told me I've never done anything insubordinate to him. He told me that on Friday the 29th at about 6:30 in the evening."
The termination letter, signed by Cockran, also pointed out that the former chief violated a personnel policy. That alleged violation was the subject of a Daily Light article — "Italy police chief forced to cancel high school criminal justice courses" — published online on Aug. 25. It is that article that Peters said added to the kerfuffle that eventually led to his ousting.
"They got really angry," said Peters, referring to the city council. "They started questioning me on the news article that you wrote…"
The article pointed out that Peters would not be teaching criminal justice courses at Italy High School even though the Italy Independent School District was onboard with the idea and at least 24 students had signed up for the course.
Holden explained that the City's Personnel Policies handbook, which the Daily Light obtained, prohibits its employees from taking up "any outside employment, activity or enterprise" unless otherwise approved by the "city secretary or department head." Holden also noted that the mayor felt the chief's attention needed to be exclusively on "Italy issues."
Through his Facebook posts, Dan Gus of the Waxahachie-based Gus & Gilbert Law Firm explained that the reasons put forth by the council to justify his client's "illegal firing" were scapegoats. The Daily Light could not reach Gus for further comment.
Peters believes an arrest of the city secretary's son on June 14 "really did start the process" of wrestling him out of his job.
"One of my officers arrested somebody for dealing drugs, for possession with intent to distribute," Peters said. "The guy confessed to it. We seized the drugs. We seized his money. He had about $1,200."
"They can say all they want, but I never had an issue until June 14th when this all started," the former top cop added.
Amber Cunningham doesn't deny the legal troubles of her son Cade Roberts, who was previously arrested in 2017 at 17 along with two other teens on burglary charges involving the theft of several guns. Peters was not with the police department during that time. Cunningham denies that her son's recent arrest under Peters' leadership had anything to do with his firing.
"When my son was arrested, the chief was in Maine," the city secretary said. "He wasn't even in town, so I'm not sure why that would be a reason, and honestly, when he would come into my office and ask me about my son, I would just say I don't want to discuss the whole situation.
"I know that that's the rumor, and that's what's being said online," Cunningham continued. "I don't go into executive sessions, so I'm not exactly sure what was said at the executive session about the reasons he was terminated.
"I don't believe it had anything to do with my son... I know that that rumor is out there. I had nothing to do with the chief being terminated. My son had nothing to do with the chief being terminated, and in fact my son's case has been rejected by the DA's office."
The Ellis County District Attorney's office confirmed "the case was rejected on Aug. 22, 2019, by the prosecutor."
Cockran has distanced himself from the situation involving Roberts, saying the arrest played no part in his decision to terminate his former police chief.
"Well, I can tell you that right there is just a bunch of smoke and mirrors," said the mayor, who has been in office since May. "People can say whatever they want, whenever they want to say it, but the facts are in the notice of termination. It's spelled out … All this other stuff, these other allegations that you're speaking of, they're just allegations, and those allegations don't have no merit with what I have going on.
"Whatever he got going on with someone else doesn't have anything to do with me. I make my own decisions based on what I know for fact, not what other people are doing or what other people are saying."
Paul Shearin is the councilman whose alleged "wrongdoing" is also the subject of the case that Gus is building against the city. Shearin, who is a pastor and building contractor, admittedly had a "heated discussion" with Peters regarding a complaint filed against him involving the improper disposal of debris from a torn down building. Even so, he is adamant that matter had no bearing on Peters being axed.
"We hashed it out, and he said that we had no problems, and he and I worked together up until the day that I found out that he was terminated," Shearin explained. "I don't agree that he and I had an issue that led to his termination… It's crazy to think that we have that much power for one or two officers on the council to have him terminated."
"I'm going to support the city, whatever is best for the city, and until I'm told otherwise I try to support our mayor to the best of my ability," the councilman added. "I'm not against Mr. Peters in any way. I took an oath to support the city and do what's right by our city, and that's all I'm trying to do."
The Daily Light called the police department on Wednesday, and the chief's line rang without an answer. Lt. Guy Saxon, however, picked up.
"We've been just keeping track of business as usual," Saxon answered. "He [Peters] was good with the officers. He was a chief that fought for his guys. He would go to bat for them and stick up for his officers, and I still consider him my friend.
"As far as I know, he was doing his job," Saxon went on. "Whenever he was with the mayor and everything, he was behind closed doors. None of the officers have anything to do with that."
Cockran said "a person acting as interim chief" is in place until a permanent replacement is found.
As the case unfolds, the pendulum swings from side to side with those for and against the exit of Peters, who had been on the job for almost a year.
"I want my job back," the fired chief stated. "I didn't do anything wrong. I did my job."