Six police officers stand at attention in an automotive museum
Then-Vallejo Police Ofc. Ryan McMahon (right) waits to be recognized at a Vallejo Police Department awards luncheon on April 26, 2018 in Vallejo, Calif. Credit: Vallejo Police Department

Last week, former Vallejo police officer Ryan McMahon, whose alleged participation in a post-killing ritual sparked investigations and widespread protests, filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Vallejo, a former Vallejo police captain, and others for alleged civil rights violations and other harms, court records show.

The complaint, filed Sept. 13 in the Eastern District of California, lists nine causes of action against the various defendants. The lawsuit centers on the alleged leak of confidential information concerning McMahon’s performance during two of the four years in which he was employed by the Vallejo Police Department. 

“Everyone should be concerned about their right to privacy,” McMahon’s attorney Lenore Albert told Open Vallejo in an email Monday.

A spokesperson for the city of Vallejo did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Vallejo police spokesperson Sgt. Rashad Hollis declined to comment.

McMahon’s lawsuit alleges that former Vallejo Police Capt. John Whitney “was caught taking confidential information from personnel records from the police department,” and that McMahon “may have been a victim of the breach by John Whitney,” according to the complaint.

A 50-year-old police officer wearing a suit poses for a portrait in his attorney's office on a sunny day.

Geoffrey King / Open Vallejo

Former Vallejo Police Capt. John Whitney is seen here in his attorneys’ office in Oakland, Calif. on Sept. 13, 2023. That day, former Ofc. Ryan McMahon filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging Whitney leaked McMahon’s confidential personnel records. Credit: Geoffrey King / Open Vallejo

But in August 2019, an internal affairs investigation cleared Whitney of leaking confidential information, according to court records. Whitney was fired after the same review found he had reset his department-issued iPhone after receiving notice of the investigation. On Tuesday, he settled a whistleblower lawsuit against the city for nearly $1 million.

Neither Whitney nor his attorney Jayme Walker responded to requests for comment for this article.

The complaint also names as a defendant Lt. Shane Bower, who the lawsuit alleges “failed to adequately secure confidential, sensitive or private information in McMahon’s personnel records.” He did not respond to a request for comment. 

At time of publication, no proof of service had been filed with the court, suggesting that the defendants may not have been aware they were being sued.

The records McMahon alleges were disclosed included “training documents from 2017 to 2018 that were supposed to be purged,” according to the complaint. They became the basis for a January 2023 post about McMahon’s allegedly poor work performance by The Vallejo Sun, an online publication that the complaint incorrectly identifies as a rebrand of the 101-year-old Vallejo Times-Herald, the city’s newspaper of record. One potential reason for the confusion: the story was written by Sun co-founder John Glidden, a former Times-Herald reporter; he left the Sun for a position in Solano County government earlier this year.

Although the Sun is listed as a party in the complaint, Albert said in an email that “no internet media site” is a target of, or defendant in, the lawsuit.

California law provides strong protections for news reporting, especially when that reporting is based on official records — even confidential ones.

A police officer with a flattop haircut wearing a light blue dress shirt sits in a folding chair.

Geoffrey King / Open Vallejo

Vallejo Police Lt. Shane Bower attends a police town hall on June 29, 2022 in Vallejo, Calif. Credit: Geoffrey King / Open Vallejo

“As far as Mr. McMahon, an African proverb describes his unfortunate situation best,” Albert wrote. “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.”

Albert, who also compared herself to a lion “who has learned to write her own story,” appears to have been charged by the California State Bar in seven disciplinary proceedings since 2015, most recently in June of 2022, according to her public State Bar profile. Two of those proceedings resulted in the suspension of Albert’s law license in 2018 and 2019, the State Bar website shows. In an email, Albert denied that she had been the subject of seven disciplinary matters, suggesting that a data breach the Bar experienced in 2022 undermined the accuracy of records on its public-facing website.

A search of the State Bar court portal returns a list of nine cases against Albert, including eight cases for which the charging documents are publicly available.

In 2018, while her law license was suspended, Albert ran for Orange County District Attorney, according to the nonprofit newsroom Voice of OC. She was readmitted to practice law before the race concluded but lost to current District Attorney Todd Spitzer, Voice of OC reported. Albert was then suspended again in August of 2019 before being reinstated in April of 2021, according to her State Bar profile.

In September 2022, two years after the city of Vallejo terminated him for allegedly endangering a former colleague during a fatal shooting, McMahon found work with the beleaguered Broadmoor Police Department, records obtained by Open Vallejo show. He lasted less than six months at the agency: while the circumstances of his departure were not immediately clear, the lawsuit alleges that McMahon “lost his employment,” harming his reputation and causing him severe emotional distress.

The records obtained by Open Vallejo, which are current through Aug. 28, also suggest that McMahon has not worked as a peace officer in California since leaving Broadmoor. (The records do not include officers who work undercover or have another legitimate interest in remaining anonymous.)

“Part of being an officer is serving the community,” McMahon said in an interview Monday. “A city and its employees should have trust, and when that trust is broken, there should be accountability.”

Geoffrey King is the executive editor of Open Vallejo. Prior to founding Open Vallejo, Geoffrey worked as an attorney and journalist focused on free expression, open government, press freedom and privacy. He is a proud native of Vallejo, California.