Saturday, September 20, 2014

COUNTY EXECUTIVE RACE: OPRA Lawsuit Reveals Donovan Hides Documents, Lies to Public, and Doles Out Patronage Contracts

A recently released document obtained by the Bergen County Democratic Committee, along with previously released documents, shows that statements made by County Executive Kathleen Donovan following the hiring by Bergen Community College of her campaign manager were not true.

Public Relations consultant Alan Marcus, who had also served as an adviser to Donovan, was retained by Bergen Community College in April of 2013, despite being the highest of three bids.  At the time, Donovan released multiple statements denying any knowledge and questioning the hire.  Marcus and the college's legal counsel, John Schepesi, both refuted Donovan's statements, both stating they spoke with the County Executive.

In response to an Open Public Records Act lawsuit, the previously secret email shows that 10 days prior to the contract being awarded to Marcus, he emailed County Administrator Ed Trawinski saying, "As you are probably aware, I am working with BCC..."

On April 8, 2013,  County Administrator Ed Trawinski read a statement from Donovan in which she asked for an explanation of why college officials needed a public relations consultant at all.

The Record reported on April 9th that "Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan asked Bergen Community College officials Monday for a detailed explanation as to why they tried to hire a firm headed by her former campaign manager to serve as a $7,500-a-month public relations consultant."

"Once again Kathe Donovan and her administration have been caught in a lie.  Over the last 4 years we have bore witness to the county executive's willingness to say anything, regardless of facts.  This is yet another attempted cover up within the Donovan administration, which has led to 4 separate investigations involving those closest to her," said Freeholder Steve Tanelli.

“What’s troubling is back in June I called for an investigation into the shadow government between Donovan and Marcus and my request was ignored and covered up. This shows there was good reason for a serious investigation. Who is really running Bergen County, Donovan or her political hacks?” continued Tanelli.

"It remains our position that Kathe Donovan's administration has and continues to hide documents that show a pattern of ethical misconduct by the County Executive and the people closest to her.  The County Executive's efforts to try and keep documents from being seen by the public and her willingness to blatantly lie to the public is troubling," said Derek Sands, a Democratic Party Spokesperson.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

COUNTY EXECUTIVE RACE: Anti-Donovan Facebook Page Gains Traction asDonovan's Power Struggle Intensifies

A Facebook group, "Women Voters Against the Reelection of Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan," continues to gain members as more Republicans come out against the strong arm tactics of a County Executive that many outspoken members of the group refer to as "egotistical," "power hungry," and "out of touch."  Tonight, the group crossed a milestone adding its 5,000th member in less than two months.  


The group was started by a group of independent women who are dedicated to the support of Bergen County's law enforcement officers.  They set out on a mission to bring truth and transparency to the voters of Bergen County after County Executive Donovan went to war with Sheriff Mike Saudino.  Donovan is against the Board of Chosen Freeholder's proposed (well, approved) merger of the Bergen County Police Department with the Sheriff's Department.

Donovan, who has a full-time escort from the Bergen County Police Department, vetoed the Freeholder Board's approval of the merger.  When the Freeholder Board overrode Donovan's veto, she filed a lawsuit (including unfounded claims of ethics violations by Freeholders Tanelli and Ganz) in protest (well, more of a stall tactic).  Her efforts continue to be dealt blow after blow in court [more to come on Donovan's waste of taxpayer funds on lawsuits, vetoes, and appeals in a follow up story]. 

To the insult (and quite frankly, danger) of every Bergen County Sheriff's Department Officer, Donovan has publicly taken the stance that "they're [Sheriff's Officers] not police officers."  Furthering her claims, and in an attempt to protest the Freeholders' claims that a merger could save $200 million over 20 years, Donovan told Mark Bonamo of, "There is no saving of money, because [if the merger took place] we will have to hire non-police people to do things that the police now do."

Sheriff Saudino believes that Donovan's repeated attempts to belittle Sheriff's Department Officers put his officers, and the public, at risk.  A letter sent to the County Executive by Sheriff Saudino last month requests that the County Executive immediately cease and desist from continuing to promulgate a false perception to the public that Sheriff's Officers are not Police Officers.  Saudino asserts that Donovan's "power struggle with the Board of Chosen Freeholders" continues to "put politics over public safety."  Saudino cites New Jersey law (NJSA 52:17B-67) which clearly states, "Police officer shall mean any employee of a law enforcement unit, including sheriff's officers...." Donovan has yet to respond to the letter, or offer an apology to the Bergen County Sheriff's Department for her comments.

Sheriff's Officers undergo the same training, and graduate from the same Police Academy, as your local police.  In fact, the Bergen County Sheriff's Department does routine patrol and traffic enforcement around county facilities.  Sheriff's Officers often partner with local law enforcement agencies for not only routine patrol and enforcement, but also special assignments and details.  For example, the Sheriff's Department and Hackensack Police Department have often partnered for the patrol of the City of Hackensack.  The Sheriff's Department also has a number of specialized units including Detectives, Criminal Investigation, Crime Scene Investigation, and the Fugitive Squad.

Though Donovan continues to battle the Board of Chosen Freeholders in her attempt to control the Bergen County Police Department, she does acknowledge that shared services are a positive.  She agrees that police departments should merge to save money.  Donovan told Bonamo, "I think police departments should merge, but you don't put a politician in charge of a quasi-military operation."

Though Donovan asserts that Saudino is a politician, many critics contend that Brian Higgins (the Bergen County Police Chief) has improperly interjected himself into the political process, becoming nothing more than a Donovan Pawn.  Higgins has come under fire for his improperly requesting that two Bergen County Police Officers interfere with a traffic stop of a Donovan ally, Freeholder Maura DeNicola.  Two Bergen County Sheriff's Officers stopped DeNicola and discovered that her vehicle registration had lapsed.  Higgins initially denied interfering, however, he later admitted to sending officers to the scene for the purposes of video taping the incident because of a "patter of harassment" by Sheriff's Officers.  The State PBA suspended Higgins's membership for two years over the incident.  

Don't you wish you could put a call out to your local Chief of Police in the middle of a traffic stop for assistance? Shame on you Freeholder DeNicola!

Donovan's bullying and strong arm tactics with the Sheriff's Department extend to such lows as interfering with the pay and benefits of the Sheriff's Departments' more than 400 officers.  Donovan has, for over three years, attempted to interfere with the Sheriff's Department 2011-2014 contract.  Despite the union settling their contract, Donovan has publicly announced she "refuses" to sign the contract.  She has filed unfair labor practice complaints, motions, lawsuits, and appeals, in an attempt to get a seat on the opposite side of the negotiation table from the Sheriff's Department Local 134.  She has lost every round with judges asserting that she has overstepped her bounds and proclaiming that the Sheriff, and Sheriff alone, has the right to negotiate a contract with his officers' collective bargaining unit.

Donovan also allegedly withheld the pay and benefits of six new hires to the Sheriff's Department by refusing to sign their request-for-personnel (M1) forms.  When the matter was pulled into the public spotlight, the forms were promptly signed (more than four weeks after the officers were hired).

Donovan has also interfered with operations of the Bergen County Sheriff's Department in her attempt to stop Sheriff Saudino from acquiring two Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAP's) from a Federal program (at no cost to the taxpayer).  Despite Donovan's claims that the maintenance costs are prohibitive, and that there is no place for these military vehicles on the streets of Bergen County, she has not announced that she will be calling on the Bergen County Police Department to sell, or otherwise surrender, their two military style vehicles.

Now, I ask you, is there really a difference between these two vehicles? Is one more "ominous" than the other? Or does Kathleen Donovan just want to bully the Bergen County Sheriff's Department in her continued power struggle with the Board of Chosen Freeholders?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Department of Public Works Requests an End to Threats of Retaliation

In a letter sent to Mayor John Labrosse, the business agent for Teamsters Local 560 requests an end to the harassment and intimidation directed towards parks and recreation employees by certain members of the council.  In this letter, Charles D'Angelo asserts that employees feel "harassed and intimidated, by way of stalking."  D'Angelo goes on that the harassment has escalated to the point that many employees "no longer feel safe in doing their jobs in the proper manner, to which they are accustomed to, without the fear of retaliation..."

Several employees were reluctant to share their stories with The Hackensack Scoop out of the fear of retaliation.  Others kept detailed diaries of their encounters and shared them under the promise of anonymity.

A common thread through all of the stories shared were that Councilman Battaglia and Councilman Sims often appear at work sites and city garages to do unannounced "inspections" of the work that is being performed--"sometimes they sit in their cars and watch us for as long as an hour, other times they have come into the garages or up to us in the parks and confronted us," one employee said.

One employee shared this pictures with me.  He says that Councilmen Battaglia and Sims sat in this van for over an hour in the middle of a field watching the men work.

One employee took this picture.  He says that Councilman Sims regularly visited the parks at times the parks were not in use to "check up" on what the workers were doing.

One worker says that Councilman Sims criticized the way he set up this event and rearranged these chairs.

 Councilman Battaglia Wants More Soccer

One employee went on to tell me of an afternoon in mid-August when he was reapplying spray painted lines to the field at Johnson Park.  "The field is lined with white, yellow, and blue lines so that the field can be used by both the soccer and field hockey programs," the worker explained.  Councilman Battaglia instructed the worker to not reapply blue lines, only the white and yellow ones because, "the white and yellow lines are used for soccer, the field hockey program should only be using the fields at the high school."  The worker resisted, but ultimately gave in to the councilman's demand.  A few days later he was reprimanded when a phone call came from High School Athletic Director, Dave Petrella, requesting that the lines be reapplied because the school had a permit to use the fields and was unable to do so without the proper field lining.

The theme of needing more fields for soccer is common in many of the worker's interactions with Battaglia.  Despite criticizing the use of overtime by the parks department, Battaglia allegedly ordered employees to (on overtime) line and install fencing around a previously open field, as pictured below.  Lights are said to have been installed around this field today.

One employee told me that Battaglia has pressured the men out of the municipal greenhouse and ordered that the heat and water be turned off.  When I asked why he would allegedly do such a thing, they responded "the big soccer bubble."  They explained that Battaglia has grand visions of a "20 plus million dollar indoor soccer stadium" being erected on the land where the greenhouse stands.   The employee says Battaglia has exclaimed "nobody and I mean nobody is stopping me from taking that greenhouse down."  The employee went on to tell me that Councilman Battaglia has now attempted to lay claim to space in the parks department garage to store personal equipment for his soccer program.

The employees had similar encounters with Councilman Sims.  One employee recalls a day when Councilman Sims approached him and demanded that the infield dimensions be altered on certain fields in Foschini Park.  When the worker explained that he previously agreed with the recreation program that he would remove grass, apply clay, and then rake and line the fields, in the Fall, Sims pushed back.  The employee asked Sims to submit a request so that a work order would be issued but he recounts that he was handed a business card that identified Mr. Sims and was told "this is all you need."

Councilman Sims Monitors Garbage Cans

One employee recounts how Mr. Sims monitors the garbage cans in the parks and accuses the employees of not emptying the cans frequently enough.  The employee recounts a day that Sims confronted two employees in Carver Park stating, "what's the matter, can't you empty the damn cans."  He went on to describe the day that he was confronted next to a garbage can in Staib Park.  Councilman Sims allegedly reached into the garbage can and pulled out a receipt that was dated a week earlier.  Sims exclaimed that the garbage cans were to be emptied daily and this receipt was evidence that the employees were not doing their job adequately.  The parks worker said he explained to the councilman that the garbage cans were emptied that very same day to which he was called, "a liar."

Councilman Battaglia Threatens Privatization

The employees went on to share their concerns regarding the threatened privatization of the Departments of Public Works and Sanitation.  The employees said they have been told on a number of occasions such things as "you are replaceable by $10 an hour Mexicans."  The employee said that Battaglia told the men "no one has lost their jobs yet, but the big guy [Troast] is coming and that is going to change." Battaglia allegedly asserted that Troast (the likely new hire for City Manager) will be exploring privatization of services and directly said he, "has the balls to do it."  One worker advised me that as late as just today Battaglia advised the men that layoffs will be coming this winter.

A report from several parks workers that Battaglia has been using his wife (a municipal court administrator who was improperly given a $10,000 raise) to investigate motor vehicle and background records of several parks employees.  When questioned about this at tonight's council meeting, Battaglia became irate.  It is reported that Battaglia made inappropriate remarks about Board of Education Trustee Jason Nunnermacker who asked, and eventually almost came to blows with Former Municipal Prosecutor Richard Salkin.

When given the opportunity, Councilman Sims declined to comment for this article.  A request for comment from Councilman Battaglia went unanswered.

This council has promised to put an end to costly lawsuits.  It seems, however, that they have done nothing more than increase the number of employment related claims at a time when our insurance coverage has been reduced from $6,000,000 to $1,000,0000.  The coverage for 2014 is already spoken for by the Weuste, Rottino, and Flanagan complaints.  Moreover, no employee deserves to be treated in such a hostile manner.  The residents of Hackensack are catered to by some of the finest parks and sanitation workers in the State of New Jersey, I wish for them a fair and hospitable work environment.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hackensack Fire Department Extinguishes Bergen County Sheriff's Department Sedan

This morning, Engine 4 & Rescue 1 responded to a car fire involving a Bergen County Sheriff's Department vehicle on Clay Street. 

The Sherrif's Department detective who was driving the vehicle told responders that she heard a noise and noticed smoke after passing the railroad tracks on Union Street.  The Fire Department quickly extinguished the fire and the vehicle was turned over to the Sheriff's Department.   The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Photos courtesy of Hackensack Fire Department

Monday, September 8, 2014

ONLY ON THE SCOOP: Suspect Allegedly Disarms and Assaults Hackensack Police Captain

Mario Querubin, 21, of Hackensack has been charged with disarming and assaulting a police officer while resisting arrest and hindering apprehension.

On September 3rd, Captain Nicole Foley was driving on Oak Street when she observed a man sleeping in a parked vehicle.  When Foley approached the vehicle to perform a welfare check, she was faced with a combative and argumentative Querubin.

Querubin exited the vehicle while threatening Captain Foley.  Foley attempted to strike with her baton when Querubin disarmed her, a struggle ensued.  Police Officers Robert Ghirardi and Michael Koenig arrived on scene and were able to subdue Querubin after discharging OC (pepper) spray.

Captain Foley subsequently learned that Querubin had an active warrant for contempt of court and failure to appear in Teaneck Municipal Court.  Foley signed complaints against Querubin for: hindering apprehension, obstruction of a government function, disarming a law enforcement officer, aggravated assault on a police officer, and resisting arrest.

A big Hackensack Scoop SHOUT OUT to Officers Ghirardi and Koenig for not only their assistance of Captain Foley in a time of need but their assistance in effectuating this arrest. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Hackensack's Municipal Prosecutor Facing Complaint by New Jersey Supreme Court's Office of Attorney Ethics

After campaigning on promises to end pay-to-play and political favoritism, the City Council has been brutally criticized for many of their politically motivated hires.  The majority of these hires have brought nothing more than shame, and increased litigation costs, to the City of Hackensack.

Thom Ammirato, the Citizens for Change campaign spokesman, was hired as a $78,000 per year public relations consultant.  He was fired from the City of Hackensack after a flurry of subpoenas from the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office were served upon Hackensack relative to Ammirato's holding conflicting full-time government employment was uncovered by the Hackensack Scoop.

Ammirato's close friend, Anthony Rottino, served as a fundraising coordinator for the Citizens for Change.  Rottino was awarded with a newly created job, "Director of Economic Redevelopment."  Rottino was quickly promoted to Interim City Manager receiving $176,000 per year, a vehicle, and health insurance benefits.  Rottino was, well, quite literally shamed and driven out of town by a band of fed up residents.  Rottino seemingly unable to handle the heat stopped coming to council meetings, and eventually showing up to work, until he filed a lawsuit against the City of Hackensack and was fired.  The newly created position "Director of Economic Redevelopment" remains vacant.  Offering more proof that the hire was political, the council has advised they have no intention of filling the position.

The third leg of this political patronage triple crown is Rottino's personal friend and business partner Frank Catania, Jr. who was hired as Hackensack's Municipal Prosecutor.  Rottino allegedly improperly, and without authorization, enrolled Catania (and his children) in the city health insurance plan.

Catania, an attorney with an office in North Haledon, has been criticized by residents for a drug related arrest in the 1980's--a matter that is reported to have been expunged but was not disclosed as part of the hiring process.  Catania, however, is also facing an ethics complaint for the alleged misappropriation of client funds that he held in an escrow account--a matter that (judging by the reaction of the council when brought to their attention) was not disclosed to the city by Catania either.

In February of this year, the Supreme Court of New Jersey's Office of Attorney Ethics brought a complaint against Catania for the "knowing misappropriation of client funds; dishonesty; failure to safeguard client funds and failure to make prompt disposition of client funds." These allegations arise from a real estate transaction which closed in 2010.

In connection with this transaction, Catania's client was purchasing a riparian grant from the State of New Jersey.  The title agency required that $190,000.00 be held in escrow.  Catania held these funds in his attorney trust account for his client.  Despite the need for $190,000.00 to remain in escrow, Catania allegedly withdrew $25,000.00 from the client's funds for personal use.  The withdrawal of $25,000.00 was made in two installments: $15,000.00 made payable to Cattino Fitness Corporation and $10,000.00 made payable to Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith, and David for legal fees that Catania had incurred relative to his own business.  The complaint further alleges that Catania settled other client matters using funds that were held in unrelated trust accounts until completely replenishing the $25,000.00 in September of 2012.

In May of 2013, Catania advised the Office of Attorney Ethics that he had borrowed $25,000.00 from his client.  He justified the $15,000.00 loan to Cattino Fitness as being necessary to meet payroll and the $10,000.00 loan to Essex County Motors as having been necessary for the payment of legal fees  [side note: both of these struggling businesses were 50% owned by Anthony Rottino according to public documents]. Catania produced two handwritten notes authorizing his borrowing the funds from the client.  These handwritten notes, however, are in direct contradiction to earlier information that he had provided to the Office of Attorney Ethics.  In July of 2012 when Catania's trust account was audited, he explained that the $10,000.00 deficiency in his trust account ($15,000.00 had been repaid at this time) was due to a mistake in advising the client of funds necessary for a closing--there was no mention of the subject loan.

When the city council was publicly questioned why Catania remained employed by the city despite his political connections and troubled past, Mayor Labrosse explained that Catania is "doing a great job."  Deputy Mayor Kathy Canestrino went on to offer lip service on the topic during her closing remarks, "none of us want anyone in a position because of a political affiliation, we all agree to that...the folks that are here, if they are here if they are working and proving themselves and doing a good job then to remove them from that position because it is a perception they are politically connected to someone else, is just as wrong as hiring someone under that pretense...if these folks are doing a good job for the city, there is every reason to have them continue to work for the city and it is to your benefit as residents..."  Whether Canestrino was admitting that she was wrong in voting to hire Catania, or she was saying that she won't fire him now because two wrongs don't make a right, I am not sure.  I do, however, know that Hackensack can do better.

Democrats Call on Donovan, County GOP to Refuse GOPAC Contributions and Return “Dirty” Money

GoPAC, a Washington, D.C. based Republican Super PAC that funneled money to Kathe Donovan’s 2010 campaign for Bergen County Executive, has hired Bill Stepien – a key member of the Chris Christie staff who orchestrated Bridgegate last year.  Stepien came under fire after he called Fort Lee Mayor Marc Sokolich an "idiot" during last year's lane closures.

The report of Stepien’s hire comes just a week after Bergen County Freeholder Tracy Zur requested that acting state Attorney General John Hoffman investigate whether GOPAC broke state law by funneling money to Kathe Donovan’s 2010 campaign.

That year, Fair Lawn Council members Ed Trawinski and Jeanne Baratta received $7,200 from GoPAC.  The very next day Trawinski and Baratta contributed that same amount -- $7,200 -- to the Republican State Committee, which then spent $90,000 on Donovan’s campaign.

Last month, it was reported that a Minnesota based political firm Stepien is associated with had received two contracts from Kathe Donovan’s campaign.

“Kathe Donovan and the Bergen County Republican Organization’s ties to Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore and GoPAC should alarm Bergen County voters.  The dirty money funneled through GoPAC has no place in Bergen County elections and we hope they will pledge to not accept another penny and return the hundreds of thousands of dollars they have accepted over the last 3 ½ years,” said Michael Pagan, Campaign Manager for the Bergen County Democrats.

Gilmore, who serves as GoPAC’s New Jersey Chairman, previously served on Kathe Donovan’s transition team and received legal work from the County Executive.

Donovan’s response to the lane closures opened her up to criticism last year when the Freeholder Board questioned her silence.  Many speculated that her close ties to the Port Authority and Attorney David Samson played a role.

“Why did Kathe Donavan remain silent for 127 days after the closing of the George Washington Bridge access lanes?  She was either asleep at the wheel or part of the cover-up.  Considering her close relationship with so many of the players, I’d be surprised if she truly was unaware,” said Pagan.