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Watertown woman, just out of prison, plans federal lawsuit against former Undersheriff Neff

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WATERTOWN — The attorney for a convicted felon who claims former Jefferson County Undersheriff Andrew R. Neff sent her unwanted text messages that included pictures of a penis intends to file a federal civil rights lawsuit next week over the matter.

Charu Narang, who represents Michele R. Bowens, said Thursday that the action will be filed in U.S. District Court, Syracuse, against Mr. Neff. Neither the county nor the sheriff’s department is expected to be named as defendants.

Ms. Narang said among the federal claims will be that Mr. Neff used his position as a police officer to “intimidate” Ms. Bowens. He is accused of sending her lewd messages from his county-issued phone.

Ms. Narang filed a notice of claim, a requirement for any state court action against a municipality, in October 2012. It alleges that, besides the unwanted texts, Mr. Neff offered to intervene with the district attorney’s office regarding criminal charges Ms. Bowens faced. The notice legally gave Ms. Bowens one year and 90 days to file a state Supreme Court lawsuit. That period has elapsed, precluding a state action. However, a notice of claim is not required in a federal action, meaning there is no 15-month window in which a suit must be filed.

Ms. Narang said the delay in filing the action was due to Ms. Bowens’s incarceration in state prison. At the time Mr. Neff allegedly offered to intercede with the district attorney’s office on her behalf in exchange for sexual favors, Ms. Bowens was facing forgery and stolen property charges. While those charges were pending, she again was charged with possession of stolen property, two credit cards taken from an Adams Center man.

After pleading guilty to the three charges in County Court, she was sentenced in March 2013 to 1 to 3 years in prison. She was released to parole supervision April 2, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision website. She previously served 1 to 3 years in prison on a 2007 grand larceny conviction for her part in a shoplifting ring.

Ms. Narang said she has been in contact with Ms. Bowens since her release from prison. Ms. Bowens indicated “she’s still on board” with filing a lawsuit. “As far as I know, she’s planning on moving forward with everything,” Ms. Narang said.

Ms. Bowens claims that she met Mr. Neff when he was with the Metro-Jeff Drug Task Force and she worked with the force as an informant. She claims they began a relationship that ended with her 2007 prison sentence.

She did not hear from him again until she was indicted on the forgery charge in October 2012, at which time the text messages allegedly were exchanged. By then, Mr. Neff was serving as undersheriff. The Sheriff’s Department has a policy forbidding its members to consort with known criminals. After the notice of claim was filed, Mr. Neff was suspended from the department, and he retired in February 2013.

County Attorney David J. Paulsen, while not speaking directly about Mr. Neff’s case, said specific allegations in a lawsuit would determine whether the county defends a former employee being sued for acts that occurred while the person worked for the county.

Ms. Bowens’s original notice of claim sought $1 million from the county. Ms. Narang said she likely will seek a similar amount in the federal action. Ms. Narang also represents Deputy Krystal G. Rice, who filed a Supreme Court suit claiming a detective took topless photos of her for use in an online pedophile investigation.

The photos are no longer available, and Ms. Rice does not know how the photos were used or who viewed them. Much of that lawsuit has been dismissed, with only a cause of action for breach of contract remaining.

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