Friday, July 24, 2015

Former Millville Detective claims that Prosecutor Webb-McRae punished him for seeking to wiretap her former clients.

Jennifer Webb-McRae
Cumberland County Prosecutor
When Millville Police Detective Jeremy Miller filed his Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA or "Whistleblower) lawsuit against the City of Millville (Cumberland County) in January 2014, it received wide coverage in the South Jersey Times, the Asbury Park Press, the Press of Atlantic City and other news outlets.  The allegations against Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae that Miller made in December 2014 amended lawsuit, however, have not been reported by the media.

In his original lawsuit, Miller alleged that the Millville PD was so dysfunctional that officers would close criminal cases without investigating them and that Lt. Edward Zadroga, the MPD's the main villain, retaliated against Miller when he wouldn't join Zadroga's quest to undermine and eventually overthrow Chief Thomas Haas.  (Readers who want more detail on the suit's allegations are invited to read the three newspaper articles above and/or Judge Richard J. Geiger's June 13, 2014 decision on Millville's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.)

In his amended complaint, Miller claimed that the publicity surrounding the filing of his original suit caused Webb-McRae's office to conduct its own internal affairs investigation into his lawsuit's allegations.  While the investigation was pending, Miller, who investigating a double-homicide, said he requested Webb-McRae's office's permission to conduct a wiretap on certain people who Miller suspected of being involved in the homicide.  Miller claimed that as a result of that request, he was "abruptly and without notice of explanation pulled from his duties as a detective with the Millville Police Department and assigned to patrol duty, night shift, weekend duty."  Miller asserted that his reassignment was punishment for "bad press" Webb-McRae received after Miller's lawsuit was filed and because she had, in private practice, represented some of the people that Miller wanted to wire-tap.

Other items bearing some relevance to this matter:
  • Lt. Zadroga was among the officers sued by a fellow police officer who claimed that Zadroga and the others harassed him because of his sexual orientation.  That lawsuit resulted in a $415,000 settlement reached in May of 2009.
  • In December 2014, Zadroga received $100,000 to settle his CEPA lawsuit that claimed he was punished for reporting alleged ticket-fixing in the Millville Police Department.
  • On April 19, 2015, Zadroga was arrested for drunk driving but remains "officer in charge" of the Millville Police Department.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Alpine school district sends special needs student to live-in school in Virginia.

On July 13, 2015, I blogged about the Alpine (Bergen County) school district's confidential settlement in which it agreed to pay 73.77% of the $108,449 annual cost of sending a special needs student to an out-of-district school.  In response to a subsequent Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request in which I challenged the district's decision to redact the name of the child's new school, the district provided me with a more narrowly redacted agreement that disclosed that new school is the Little Keswick School in Keswick, Virginia, where the student apparently resides in a dormitory.

The settlement agreement was unanimously approved by the Alpine Board of Education at its October 2, 2014 meeting.  The resolution passed by the Board (shown below) is somewhat vague and does not disclose the cost to the district.
D01364 Moved by Mr. Roura, seconded by Mrs. Kurtz BE IT RESOLVED by the Alpine Board of Education ("the Board") that the terms, stipulations and conditions as established in the Settlement Agreement and Release between the Board and the Parents of a student whose name is on file in the Superintendent's office, which is annexed to this Resolution, are hereby adopted and approved by the Board. The Board President and Superintendent are hereby authorized and directed to execute the Settlement Agreement and Release, and any other documents necessary to effectuate the settlement.
Background: This is a new placement for an existing out of district student. (student #3184213983)  Via Voice: 5 Ayes 0 Nays

Suit alleges Millville police officer pulled gun on dirt bike riding 13 year-old.

In a lawsuit filed on January 12, 2015, a thirteen year old boy, identified only by the initials C.F., claimed that Millville (Cumberland County) Police Officer Michael Thompson pointed "a gun directly at him" for about 30 seconds after Thompson stopped the boy for riding a motorized dirt bike in a wooded area near Magnolia Avenue on September 27, 2014.  The boy and his parent, identified as D.F., claimed that the officer's decision to pull a gun was unwarranted "because  of the lack of severity of the crime at issue, because [the boy] did not pose an immediate threat to the safety of the police officer or others, and because [the boy] was not actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight."  According to the lawsuit, filed by Mount Laurel attorney Kevin M. Costello, the officer's decision to deploy his weapon amounted to excessive force and violated the boy's rights under both the federal and state constitutions.

After learning about this lawsuit, I filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for the police report, use of force report and other documents related to the event.  The police report that I received gives no indication of a gun being used by Officer Thompson.  Rather, the report depicts a rather benign event where the boy was allowed to walk his dirt bike home after Thompson verified that it wasn't stolen.

Letter to Millville City Commission

July 23, 2015

Hon. Michael Santiago, Mayor and members of the
Millville City Commission
via e-mail

RE: An Ordinance Amending Chapter 46, §§ 63 and 64 of Article XIII (Employee Complaint Policy)

Dear Mayor Santiago and Commissioners:

I understand that the captioned ordinance, which was scheduled for final reading and passage on July 21st, was postponed for further discussion and consideration.  I have reviewed both the original ordinance and the previously proposed amendments and would like to offer my comments.

A critical flaw, in my view, is contained in both the present and previously proposed amendment to § 46-63(b).  That provision requires the City Administrator to advise "the Commissioner in charge of the department where the complainant is employed" upon receipt of a complaint and calls for that Commissioner to choose the person who will investigate the complaint.

The flaw becomes apparent when one considers the following hypothetical: Suppose that an employee in the Department of Public Works files a complaint against Commissioner Ennis. In accordance with § 46-63(b), the City Administrator would advise Ennis--the Commissioner in charge of Public Works--of the complaint's filing and presumably of the complainant's identity.  And, according to § 46-63(b), Ennis would be allowed to choose the person who will investigate his own alleged wrongdoing.

First, if the City believes, as I do, that employees who encounter wrongdoing by their department's Commissioner should be encouraged to report it, § 46-63(b) is counterproductive because it guarantees that that Commissioner will immediately be informed of the complaint and the identify of the complainant.  I believe that complaints--at least against City Commissioners--would be more forthcoming if the complainant's identity--at least in the initial stages--was not disclosed to the Commissioner that oversees the complainant's department.

Second, it seems completely wrong to me for a Commissioner against whom a complaint has been filed to have any role in choosing the complaint's investigator.

Beyond these, there are other provisions in both the original code and the proposed amendment that don't make a great deal of sense.

For example, § 46-63(a) establishes a mandatory reporting procedure when wrongdoing is discovered by an employee.  ("An employee who believes that he or she has been subjected to or is aware of wrongdoing in the workplace shall submit a complaint to the City Administrator within 20 days from the date of the alleged incident.")  Yet, § 46-61 seems to make this optional and allows employees to "make a verbal complaint at their discretion."

There is no procedure in place regarding how verbal complaints are processed and adjudicated.  If an employee's verbal complaints to his or her immediate supervisor about a hostile work environment are ignored, those complaints will likely form the basis of a civil lawsuit against the City.  Better, in my view, would be to require all complaints to submitted in writing and go through a formal complaint process.  A prompt, impartial and meaningful internal process might satisfy the complainant and obviate costly lawsuits.

As another example, one of the proposed additions to § 46-64 states:
In the event, however, the complaint contains allegations of harassment or any other wrongdoing against a Commissioner, then the Board of Commissioners shall discuss the conclusions  contained in the investigator’s report with the City Attorney and render a final decision within 14 days after the receipt of the report.
I think that it would better to explicitly exclude the Commissioner who is under investigation from the discussions and decision-making process.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Very truly yours,

John Paff

Update: 07/24/15: Another, more recent amendment to the ordinance has been drafted.  It is somewhat better but still suffers from the same flaws noted above.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Former Continuing Education Director files "whistleblower" lawsuit against Cumberland County College.

On February 12, 2015, Cumberland County College's former Director of Continuing Education filed a suit claiming that she was fired because she made legitimate complaints against her supervisors.

In her lawsuit, Nancy Pollard said that she had made several complaints to the College's upper management including that her supervisor made changes to the College's Certified Medical Assistant program that allowed unqualified students pass the class.  She also claimed that her supervisor improperly listed students in a graduation program in order of their GPA rankings and demanded that Pollard do work while she was on approved medical leave.

Pollard is being represented by Richard M. Pescatore of Vineland.  The College, which denied all of Pollard's allegations, is being represented by Wendy D. Testa and Karen M. Gottlieb of Philadelphia.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Brick Ethics Committee deflects complaint for technical reasons.

Those who use the services of the Brick Township (Ocean County) Ethics Information Committee must be very careful when completing the "What is your requested remedy for this complaint" section of the Committee's complaint form.  The Committee apparently cares more about a complaint's technical niceties than it does its substance.  If one asks the Committee to "investigate" rather than "review" a complaint, he or she will probably get a rejection letter from the Township Attorney.

On June 15, 2015, I filed my complaint with the Committee because five members of the Township's Tourism Development Committee, which is granted the "exclusive authority to disburse all of the revenues allocated to the Tourist Development Fund," failed to file Financial Disclosure Statements in 2014 and 2015.  This is clearly a violation of the Local Government Ethics Law.  While I could have filed directly with the Local Finance Board in Trenton, I opted to invoke the Brick Committee's process, which is set forth in the Township Code..

In response to the Ethics Committee's question of my "requested remedy" for the complained of matters, I stated: "Investigate whether there is any valid excuse for the failure to file. and if none is found. file a complaint against those named with the Local Finance Board."

In his June 25, 2015 rejection letter, Township Attorney Kevin N. Starkey set me straight on the inadequacies of my complaint.  First, Starkey informed me that the "Brick Township Ethics Information Committee does not conduct investigations, nor does it file complaints with the Local Finance Board."  Rather, the Committee "reviews" complaints and then "forwards" them to the Local Finance Board in appropriate situations.  Due to my complaint's inadequacies, Starkey informed me that my complaint "will not be forwarded to the Local Finance Board" because it "does not seek a valid action by the Ethics Information Committee."

Starkey's letter does not mention anything about the substance of my complaint, i.e. whether Brick's Ethics Committee will do anything to enforce the Local Government Ethics Law against the Tourism Development Committee who have failed to file their Financial Disclosure Statements.  I checked the Local Finance Board's website today and those Committee members still have not filed.

Friday, July 3, 2015

More info on Medford Township Manager's 2014 separation from employment.

On August 23, 2014, I blogged some information that I then had about the reasons underlying Christopher Schultz's abrupt resignation from his position as Medford Township (Burlington County) Manager.  Since then, I have obtained another version of the Council's July 22, 2014 executive session minutes that shed some more light on what had occurred.

Interestingly, I now have three versions of the July 22, 2014 executive minutes, which I have placed on line here.  The first version is heavily redacted.  The second version, which is more narrowly redacted than the second, was the basis of my August 23, 2014 blog post.  The last version (pages 7 - 9 of the PDF at the above link) has the fewest redactions.  I chanced upon the last version, which is marked "draft," by submitting an Open Public Record Act (OPRA) request for OPRA requests filed by another citizen.

The newly available version indicates that there was a "relationship" that was found to "consensual and there being no coercion."  After discussion, the Council heard Township Labor Attorney Robert Merryman "explain discipline regarding the Township Manager under the Faulkner Act."  After discussing its disciplinary options, the Council "agreed on termination, but would give Mr. Schultz the opportunity to resign."  A copy of the confidential Separation Agreement between Schultz and the Township is on-line here.

After his separation from Medford, Schultz was hired as the business administrator and clerk of the Borough of Pine Hill (Camden County).  Prior to working for Medford, Schultz served as Township Manager for Moorestown (Burlington County).  He resigned from Moorestown in May of 2011.