WEST TRENTON, N.J. - A decorated New Jersey State Police trooper says his bosses at the very top of the force are trying to ruin his career and his life.
And he says a FOX 29 Investigates' report on a photo some deemed racist by some touched it all off. Investigative reporter Jeff Cole has the story.
Ken Franco looks like lots of guys hustling to make a buck. But, for Franco, carpentry isn't just a side job. It's how he's fighting to keep the wolf from his door.
"What status are you in right now?" Cole asked.
"I am actually suspended without pay," Franco said.
He's off the job with no pay as a New Jersey State Police trooper.
Cole asked him, "Did you like fighting crime?"
"I did. I loved it," Franco answered.
He's been a state cop for 23 years and has risen to Detective Sergeant First Class, earning $125,000 a year.
"Had a stellar career, enjoyed every minute of it," Franco said. "If you had asked me from the first day I started I would have told you, 'I love the state police.'"
But for Franco the love has turned to bitterness because he says the state police are moving to fire him for his alleged connection to the release of controversial photos three years ago.
"The state police allege that you released that photo publicly," Cole said.
"That is correct," Franco said.
"Did you release that photo?" Cole asked.
"Absolutely not," Franco answered.
"You did not give it to Angel Cordero, who gave it to me?" Cole followed-up.
"No, I did not," Franco said.
More on Franco and the pictures in a moment. First, the outrage.
"Why are these police officers waving my flag in front of all this illegal substance?" Camden activist Angel Cordero asked.
The photos touched-off a fire storm of controversy in Camden where they were shot. FOX 29 Investigates reported on them in March of 2012.
One photo shows five New Jersey State Police troopers seated behind a table of drugs and guns taken in a 2009 raid in the struggling city. In the other, a trooper sits alone.
In both photos, a trooper is holding the flag of the territory of Puerto Rico taken in the bust.
Cordero says the pictures were insulting: "sending a message that Puerto Ricans are drug dealers and gun smugglers. No, we are good people. We are Americans."
A state police spokesperson would not confirm the names of the troopers in the photos. We are not revealing four of the five. According to a legal document, the man holding the Puerto Rican flag is veteran Trooper Kenneth Sirakides.
The office of the New Jersey Attorney General reveals that it's Sirakides in its response to a discrimination and whistleblower lawsuit Franco has filed against state police.
Cordero tells FOX 29 Investigates days after voicing his anger in our 2012 report, two detectives came to see him.
"Were you surprised that the state police sent two detectives down to talk to you to find out where you got the picture?" Cole asked.
"Surpised? I thought I was going to get arrested! I said, 'Why am I being investigated? I just want justice done,'" Cordero said.
Cole inquired, "Did they ever get back to you to tell you and say, 'Well, here's the result of our investigation?'"
"They never got back to me," said Cordero, adding that he was given the photos by the Camden National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Franco tells FOX 29 Investigates he did not work with the group to make the photos public.
"Have you ever heard of a New Jersey state trooper named Kenny Franco?"
"I don't know who he is. Absolutely not," Cordero replied.
"You don't know who he is?" Cole asked again.
"I don't know who he is," Cordero said.
"Did Franco give you that picture, which you ended up giving to me?" Cole asked.
"No," Cordero said.
Franco sees racism in the move to dump him.
"The state police knew I grew up in Camden. My father was an activist, as I said, in the Hispanic community in Camden," he said. "Other than that, I cannot see any other basis for their allegation against me."
State police refused to comment on disciplinary action taken against Franco or allow its leader, Col. Rick Fuentes, to speak on camera. It did confirm Franco was suspended without pay on May 14, pending an internal investigation.
Franco had actually left the force nearly two years earlier when a state police therapist sent him home on stress leave. The reason for the stress? Rumors he was romantically involved with a female employee while on a vice detail in Atlantic City.
She was married to Trooper Sirakides. Franco denies it and has never been disciplined for it.
He was paid well over $300,000 while on leave until police cut him off.
His lawyer suspects halting his clients' pay is directly linked to his lawsuit filed around the same time.
Lawyer David Azotea said, "This is a way for the state police to level the playing field, so to speak, by putting my client out on suspension without pay, for him to buckle and either want to drop or settle his suit for pennies on the dollar."
As for the troopers in the picture, state police say they were hit with "major discipline," including "substantial suspensions without pay," but would not provide any details.
Franco says he'll keep fighting to return to the force, to a job where the state police colonel once stood with him and commended his work busting a violent drug ring as "the finest traditions of the New Jersey State Police."
Cole asked Franco, "Does this make you angry and does it offend you?"
"Absolutely, it does, especially for the career I've had and my dedication toward the state police," Franco said. "They are going to do something like this to a veteran, dedicated, Latino trooper?"
Trooper Sirakides, the man holding the flag, refused to comment.
Again, Franco says he didn't give the photo to anyone and didn't know it existed until he saw it on FOX 29 back in 2012.
His claim of racism drew a quick response from New Jersey State Police. The agency writes its Office of Professional Standards investigates incidents "according to rigorous standards of conduct for members of our agency without bias," adding, "these investigations are reviewed by the Office of Law Enforcement Professional Standards within the Attorney General's Office."