A former Newport Beach fire official accused of racking up $26,000 in unpaid toll road fees while using a city vehicle has sued the city for alleged discrimination and retaliation against an injured worker, court records show.
Paul Matheis, a former divisional fire chief, filed a lawsuit May 25 in Orange County Superior Court against the city of Newport Beach, alleging that the city began to retaliate against him after a shoulder accident that required time off in 2009.
“You’re talking about a 30-year veteran with an outstanding record here,” said Wylie Aitken, an attorney representing Matheis.
Matheis, 52, claims in his lawsuit that he filed grievances about the way the city service board was conducting business by not following the city’s policies and procedures. He was also critical of the bargaining agreement the Fire Department reached with the city.
Matheis asserts that he began noticing retaliation from the city in the form of a city investigation about use of his city-owned car in April 2010. The city issued a notice of intent to discipline on Oct. 27, 2010.
“He was a squeaky wheel, and … they decided to axe him,” Aitken said.
In his lawsuit, Matheis also alleges that the city violated his procedural bill of rights when it disciplined him with a demotion to fire captain, reduction in pay and 45-day suspension, according to court records.
In April 2010, the city launched an investigation into Matheis’ use of a city-owned Chevy Tahoe after receiving a bill for $26,000 in fines for not paying fees on the Foothill (241) Toll Road, according to Daily Pilot archives.
Matheis cited the city’s examination of his personal finances during the investigation as a violation of his rights, as well as saying that the city was aware of the alleged misuse of the city-owned vehicle more than one year before disciplining him, according to court records.
“He was very upfront” about his use of the city vehicle, Aitken said. “His particular conduct had been authorized at the time by the chief — Chief [Steve] Lewis.”
Matheis retired from the Fire Department on Jan. 14, he said in court documents. He had worked for the city since July 1980.
Newport Beach City Atty. David Hunt said the city was justified in its actions.
“We don’t agree with Mr. Matheis,” Hunt said. “We don’t believe this suit has merit. The facts of the situation support the city’s actions.”
In a December interview with the Daily Pilot, city spokeswoman Tara Finnigan said Matheis paid the fines personally and the issue had been resolved.
Matheis is seeking unlimited damages from the city.
The City Council is set to discuss the lawsuit in a closed-session meeting with Hunt on Tuesday.