PHOENIX — A group of former police department employees in Quartzsite had their free speech rights violated when they were fired after accusing the town police chief of misconduct, a federal judge has ruled.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Mark Aspey found that former police Chief Jeffrey Gilbert, former Town Manager Alex Taft and former Assistant Manager Albert Johnson are personally liable for damages along with the town. An amount will be determined later.

The Arizona Republic reports ( ) that nine police officers and a civilian employee sued after their firings, which came following a contentious period in the western Arizona town that saw townspeople divided into camps split between the Town Council and the police chief.

"Truth for the most part has finally come out," William Ponce, one of the plaintiffs and a former sergeant on the police force, told the Republic in a story published Thursday. "We finally get some kind of vindication."

The officers complained about Gilbert in 2011, filing complaints with the Town Council, the state Department of Public Safety and the state's law-enforcement certification agency. They alleged that Gilbert unlawfully used national crime computers to investigate political foes and violated the civil rights of dissidents by making arrests without probable cause. They also alleged that Gilbert failed to document vacation and leave time.

The 60-page ruling Aspey issued last week found that Gilbert falsely asserted that he had been cleared by a DPS inquiry and sought to intimidate the employees, threatening them with dismissal for exercising their First Amendment rights. The two town administrators carried out Gilbert's threats as retaliation.

Members of the political-minority group have said they were arrested on false charges at Gilbert's direction. Prosecutors threw out all charges against them and publicly decried the abuse of police authority in Quartzsite.

But the two town administrators concluded that police employees made false accusations against the chief, thereby discrediting the community and disrupting police services, and the employees were fired.

Laura Bruno, Quartzsite's current town manager, said she hasn't evaluated the ruling or spoken with attorneys about a possible appeal.

Gilbert, Taft and Johnson no longer work for Quartzsite. Neither they nor their lawyers could be reached for comment Wednesday.

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