Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Somerset County, for reasons unknown, gave its HR director a year of paid "administrative leave."

In response to my recent Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, Somerset County disclosed its October 2014 agreement with Human Resources Director Beverly Hacker that provided Hacker with nearly a full year of her $127,667 annual salary while she was "on administrative leave."

The "Settlement Agreement and General Release with Conditions" (on-line here), noted that Hacker and other county officials "have differences in terms of management styles" and resolvedd those differences by providing Hacker with a paid leave of absence from June 2, 2014 to May 31, 2015.  During the leave, the County agreed to contribute to Hacker medical insurance and pension.  In addition, the County also agreed to pay Hacker $12,820 for "518.50 hours of banked sick leave" and $5,524 for "138 hours of accrued vacation time."  The agreement further called for Hacker to provide the County with a "letter of intent to apply for a deferred retirement effective on or before May 31, 2015." In exchange, Hacker agreed to not file any claims or lawsuits "related to claims regarding her employment" and both parties agreed not to make disparaging remarks about the other.

The agreement is silent, however, on the nature of the "differences in terms of management styles" underlying the agreement.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Video of Atlantic City Police incident that caused $200,000 excessive force payout

By way of an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, I received a video of the incident for which Glen Forero, Jr. claimed that Atlantic City, New Jersey Police Officers Mark A. Pincus, Jr. and Jerard Ingenito used excessive force against him.  The video is on-line here and more information about the lawsuit is on-line here.

Forero's complaint, which is on-line here, claims that he and his girlfriend had been "evicted from the Showboat by security personnel" on November 12, 2010 when Forero was assaulted by Officers Pincus and Ingenito.





Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bridgeton still citing people under ordinance that was superseded in 2003.

Following is my letter to the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office and Bridgeton City Officials regarding the Bridgeton Municipal Court's continued practice of downgrading statutory violations to a municipal code provision that hasn't been in effect since 2003.

I contacted the Prosecutor's Office regarding the same issue in 2010 and was told that it was resolved.  Unfortunately, the superseded code provision is still being used.

--------------------------------------------------

April 22, 2015

Jennifer Webb-McCrae, Cumberland County Prosecutor
via e-mail to jenniferwe@co.cumberland.nj.us

Rebecca J. Bertram, Bridgeton City Solicitor
via e-mail to rebecca.j.bertram@verizon.net

Marie L. Keith, Bridgeton Municipal Court Administrator
via e-mail to marie.keith@judiciary.state.nj.us

Dear Prosecutor McCrae and Mesdames Bertram and Keith:

We wish to register our complaint regarding the Bridgeton Municipal Court's continued practice of allowing statutory charges to be pled down to violations of a superseded, preempted City Code provision.  Following are the elements of our complaint:

1. Ordinance “CO 4-3.2D” is a provision from the Bridgeton City code as it was numbered prior to the Code being completely recodified on October 6, 2003.  Similar provisions contained in the superseded § 4-3.2 are presently codified as § 251-9 of the present City Code.

2. “CO 4-3.2D” (i.e. § 4-3.2(d) of the superseded code) prohibited "loitering" that would:
Obstruct, molest or interfere with any person lawfully in any public place. This paragraph shall include the making of unsolicited remarks of an offensive, disgusting or insulting nature or which are calculated to annoy or disturb the person to, or in whose hearing, they are made.
3. The present Code § 251-9 does not contain an identical proscription.  Rather, § 251-9 proscribes the following two types of "loitering":
Obstruct[ing] any public street, public highway, public sidewalk or any other public place or building by hindering or impeding or tending to hinder or impede the free and uninterrupted passage of vehicles, traffic or pedestrians, or 
Commit[ting] in or upon any public street, public highway, public sidewalk or any other public place or building any act or thing which is an obstruction or interference to the free and uninterrupted use of property or with any business lawfully conducted by anyone in or upon or facing or fronting on any such public street, public highway, public sidewalk or any other public place or building, all of which prevents the free and uninterrupted ingress, egress and regress, therein, thereon and thereto.
4. Despite the fact that § 4-3.2(d) has not existed since 2003, the Bridgeton Municipal Court has, as recently as February 2015, downgraded statutory offenses to violations of § 4-3.2(d).  See, e.g. several complaints, on-line here, where Title 2C disorderly conduct, assault, hindering apprehension and trespassing offenses have been downgraded to § 4-3.2(d) violations by Prosecutors Demetrica Todd-Hunter and Brock Russell.

5. On April 1, 2010 (letter on-line here), I complained to the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office that downgrading statutory charges to § 4-3.2(d) violations was prohibited by a 1998 Attorney General Directive.

6. In her August 13, 2010 response (on-line here) Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae advised me that the 1998 Directive was "still in effect" and that it was important for municipal prosecutors to "make every effort to obey this directive and avoid improper downgrades." She said that she had "been in contact with the City Solicitor for the City of Bridgeton" and that the Solicitor has "taken steps to see that new problems do not arise."

7. Despite Prosecutor Webb-McRae's intervention in 2010, the Bridgeton Municipal Court continues to allow statutory charges to be downgraded to § 4-3.2(d) even though § 4-3.2(d) has not existed since 2003 and even though it is preempted by the New Jersey Criminal Code.

I ask that the recipients of this letter please cause this practice to cease.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Very truly yours,

John Paff, Chairman
New Jersey Libertarian Party's
Preempted Ordinance Repeal Project
P.O. Box 5424
Somerset, NJ  08875

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Former Cumberland First Assistant Prosecutor charged with ethics violation.

On March 20, 2015, the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics filed a formal ethics complaint against a former Cumberland County First Assistant Prosecutor who now is a named partner in a Haddon Heights law firm.

According to the ethics complaint, which is on-line here, Yaron Helmer, who served as an assistant prosecutor in Camden County before working for Cumberland, agreed to collect money for a Cherry Hill based company named NFI from another company named Trident, LLC.   According to the ethics complaint, Trident paid NFI over a million dollars over a seven month period until a March 17, 2008 check for $100,000 was dishonored by Trident's bank due to insufficient funds.  In an attempt to make good on the $100,000 bad check, Trident reportedly wrote four checks. each for $17,000, which were also dishonored by Trident's bank.

In response, NFI went to the Vineland Police Department to complain that by issuing bad checks with knowledge that they would be dishonored, Trident corporate officers James Land and Michael Pessiki violated N.J.S.A. 2C:21-5 which criminalizes the act of knowingly issuing bad checks.  After Vineland Police conducted an investigation, which included sending Vineland Detective Phillip Martinez to Harrisburg, NFI's security manager James Matlock signed criminal complaints against Land and Pessiki on July 24, 2008.  However, on September 17, 2008, Cumberland County Assistant Prosecutor Charles J. Wettstein dismissed the complaints informing Matlock that "[t]he Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office is not in the business of operating as a collection agency on your company's behalf."

NFI, which was "dissatisfied with Wettstein's decision," hired Helmer to "act as a middleman" to "persuade the [Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office] to take criminal action against" Trident's Land and Pessiki.  For his "middleman" role, NFI agreed to pay Helmer $10,000 up front plus 20% of the first $500,000 and 15% of any money above $500,000 that Helmer could collect from Trident.  After Helmer became involved, a meeting was held between Matlock, NFI's lawyer Robert Barron and Cumberland County Assistant Prosecutors G. Harrison Walters and David R. Branco (Branco now works at Helmer's firm) where a plan was allegedly hatched involving "a sealed indictment, a meeting where [Land and Pessiki] would be arrested on warrants with high bail after the indictment was unsealed and a seizure of the bail monies was to be used as restitution."  According to the ethics complaint, Helmer actually drafted the text of the indictment and testified before the Grand Jury on June 17, 2009.

As a result of the indictment, Judge John W. Waters issued an arrest warrant for Pessiki with a bail amount of $150,000.  Judge Waters later said that the $150,000 bail amount "was already typed onto the warrant when it was presented to him."  The complaint recites that an arrest warrant against Land could not be located, but that the bail amount on it was also $150,000.  A mediation session was then scheduled in Woodbury for August 6, 2009 at which both Land and Pessiki would travel from out of state to attend. The plan became for Pessiki and Land to be arrested at the mediation session.

Superiors at the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office, after becoming aware of the plan to arrest Pessiki and Land, were "not comfortable with the idea of serving arrest warrants on the defendants while they were in New Jersey for . . . a business meeting" and decided not to allow the arrest to occur.

Still, Land and Pessiki were arraigned on the bad check charges on September 15, 2009 before Judge Robert P. Becker, Jr.  When Judge Becker asked Walters about how the case might be resolved, Walters indicated that the charges could be downgraded but that "restitution would be a - the big chunk of the - of the plea."

Land was represented in the criminal matter by Carl Poplar.  Poplar, in response to Helmer's demand for a large restitution amount that exceeded the amount of the bad checks, moved to dismiss the indictment based on what "he perceived to be fundamentally wrong with the Grand Jury presentation."  In sum, Poplar questioned why Helmer assumed such a large role, having testified as a State witness and having drafted all ten counts of the indictment.  He argued that he grand jury had been improperly utilized for the purpose of pursuing a civil remedy on behalf of NFI.  In his submission, Poplar wrote "that it cannot be denied that the independence of the Grand Jury was compromised." The court, however, ruled that Helmer's role before the Grand Jury was appropriate.  In a September 2010 letter, however, the Prosecutor's office conceded "without equivocation or hesitation" that "as a matter of professional responsibility that the manner of presentation to the Grand Jury was not proper and shall not be sanctioned or condoned by Prosecutor Webb-McCrae."

The Office of Attorney Ethics claims that Helmer's role in this matter violated R.P.C. 3.4(g) which prohibits "presenting, participate in presenting or threatening to present criminal charges to obtain an improper advantage in a civil matter."

Monday, April 20, 2015

Nutley lawsuits: Various allegations including police sergeant's claim that deputy police chief struck him in the eye with "pink breast cancer plastic duck."

Alphonse Petracco
Mayor of Nutley
On March 24, 2015, I blogged about a retired Nutley police officer's acceptance of $40,000 to settle his lawsuit against Mayor Alphonse Petracco, who the officer claimed was on a power trip and lived "above the law."

After posting the blog, I searched for other lawsuits arising out of Nutley, just to see what I would find.  The results are in:

Lamond v. Nutley, et al, Docket No. ESX-L-8109-13.  Police Sergeant Christopher Lamond also paints Mayor Petracco as a power tripper. The gist of Lamond's complaint is that he became a persona non grata to Mayor Petracco after he attended a fundraiser for Nutley Commissioner Mauro Tucci, who is described as a competitor of Petracco's.  The allegations, which are numerous, include "a very humiliating and degrading moment" when Deputy Police Chief Paul Moscolo, who was allegedly "a close ally of Petracco," threw a "pink breast cancer plastic duck" that injured Lamond's left eye.  Among other claims is Petracco's alleged withholding of Lamond's promotion to lieutenant unless Lamond "succumbed to "Petracco's threats to influence others to vote for/promote [Petracco's] 'favorites.'"  Lamond's civil complaint is on-line here.

Nutley has filed a motion for summary judgment which is scheduled to be heard by Judge Dennis F. Carey at 9 a.m. on May 29, 2015.  Nutley paints Lamond as a disgruntled employee with exaggerated claims.  The Township's brief claims, for instance, that the "rubber ducky" was tossed at Lamond "in a playful manner."

Lamond is being represented by Patrick P. Toscano of Caldwell who Judge Carey disqualified from the case on December 19, 2014, citing a "conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety."  Judge Carey then reversed himself on March 6, 2015 and allowed Toscano to continue as Lamond's lawyer. Both of Carey's orders are on-line here.

Rusignuolo v. Nutley, et al, Docket No. ESX-L-4018-13.  Retired Nutley Police Officer Frank Rusignuolo claims that Deputy Fire Chief Paul Cafone worked to prevent Resignuolo's commercial tenant from getting a permit to set up a hair salon in Rusignuolo's building.  Rusignuolo claims that Cafone was motivated to obstruct the permit's issuance because the tenant was vacating Cafone's building in order to occupy Rusignuolo's.  The civil complaint is on-line here and the matter is scheduled to be tried before Judge Carey on July 6, 2015.

Pace v. Nutley et al, Docket No. ESX-L-5518-13.  Plaintiffs Anthony and Diane Pace allege that Police Lieutenants Kevin Watts and "Neri" and Officers Gerard Tusa and "Vitale" "perpetrated numerous acts of physical violence" against Anthony Pace during an October 18, 2012 call to the couple's home.  The civil complaint is on-line here and the matter is scheduled to be tried before Judge Carey on September 8, 2015.

Truchan v. Nutley et al, Docket No. ESX-L-8750-14.  Plaintiff Anthony Truchan claims that Officers Joseph Stewart, Andrew Van Dorn and "Rodriguez" applied excessive force against him on November 24, 2013 when his estranged wife Grace invited them into their home to serve him with a Temporary Restraining Order.  He claims that the officers "forcibly twisted" his arms and caused his "head to come into contact with walls as [Police] escorted him outside and into the police vehicle." The civil complaint is on-line here and the matter has been transferred to federal court.

Stafford Officer's report, written nearly 11 months after arrest, justifies warrantless search of home.

Update: April 23, 2015

Two additional, relevant files have come into my possession.

1. SWAT team report, received via an OPRA request to Stafford, in which Sergeant Herman Pharo indicates that he had spoken on the phone with Frank Koutsogiannis, the owner of the home where the warrantless search was conducted, and that Frank had given consent over the phone for police to enter the home. (Conforti's report states that Frank gave the consent to his daughter Sophia, not to Pharo directly).

2. A transcript, given to me by Vasilio Koutsogiannis who says that it is Frank Koutsogiannis's testimony at a suppression hearing.  In the transcript, Frank denies having given police permission to enter his home.

Original posting 

I hope that Chief Dellane can clarify why his officer apparently did not file his written report until nine months after an arrest was made.  My letter to the Chief follows:
------------------------
April 20, 2015

Thomas Dellane, Chief
Stafford Township Police Department
260 East Bay Avenue
Manahawkin, NJ 08050

Dear Chief Dellane:

I am writing on behalf of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Police Accountability Project regarding the March 2, 2013 arrest of Vasilio Koutsogiannis by Stafford Police. Mr. Koutsogiannis has been in touch with us and has claimed that Officer Robert Conforti's report, especially the part regarding Koutsogiannis' sister verbally conveying her father's consent to a police search of his residence, is fabricated.

While we clearly don't accept the word of criminal defendants as the unvarnished truth, we are troubled by the fact--as pointed out to us by Koutsogiannis--that Conforti's report (on-line here) was not written until January 24, 2014, which is more than nine months after the incident.

Our first thought was that Conforti might have issued a previous report.  But, your response to my Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request states that the Stafford Police Department "is not in possession of any other documents that are responsive to your request."

The March 2, 2013 search of the Koutsogiannis residence was conducted without a search warrant.  Therefore, it appears that the sole legal justification for the search was Sophia Koutsogiannis' verbal pronouncement, which was allegedly overheard by Officer Conforti, that her father had told her that he consented to a search of the premises.  The fact that Officer Conforti didn't write this in his report until more than nine months after the event is disturbing and, at the very least, invites a claim that Conforti fabricated what he allegedly overheard in order to later justify an illegal, warrantless search.

We would appreciate it if you could respond with a) an explanation as to why no earlier report by Conforti exists and b) any evidence, other than Conforti's January 24, 2014 report that the father had consented to a search of the premises.

Thank you.  We look forward to your response.

John Paff, Chairman
New Jersey Libertarian Party's
Police Accountability Project
P.O. Box 5424
Somerset, NJ  08875
Voice: 732-873-1251
Fax: 908-325-0129
e-mail: paff@pobox.com