Government

Harassment Complaints Against Freeholders Cost Hunterdon $50K in Lawyer's Fees

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The 2017 Hunterdon County Freeholder board. Credits: Bill Brokaw / TAPinto Flemington-Raritan file photo
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FLEMINGTON, NJ – For more than a year, a whisper campaign waged in private and on social media has accused some Hunterdon Freeholders of harassment and inappropriate behavior. There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to exposing it.

Publically, the freeholder board has been tight-lipped.

At the Dec. 5 Freeholder meeting, Rahway resident Amy Magnuson asked the board directly.

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“Has the county Freeholder board, or any legal authority associated with the county, investigated any members of this board within the last five years, as a result of employee complaints of inappropriate behavior, whether it be sexual or otherwise?” she asked.

“You know, as well as anybody else, I can’t comment on that,” answered then-Freeholder Director John Lanza. “And to the extent that if ... any sort of complaint is made against a freeholder, there’s a process, and that process involves treatment of a freeholder just as if that person were an employee.”  

Describing the process, Lanza said any complaint would be “investigated by independent counsel and the result of that is either finding that there was inappropriate conduct or not, based upon the allegation, and then once that’s done the investigator makes recommendations as to whether there’s remedial action to be taken or not ... I can’t comment one way or the other about the existence of those things.”

Magnuson also asked if the county had taken any corrective actions regarding complaints, or made any agreement or used public funds to pay the legal costs.

“To the extent that if that ever happens, it’s treated as an employment record and it cannot be disclosed. So whether it exists or not, I can’t comment on that in a public session,” Lanza answered.

Perhaps. But records obtained under the state’s Open Public Records Act show the county has spent about $50,000 on legal bills to three law firms regarding the complaints, and that the complaints go back about three years.

The county withheld about 75 records sought in the request, claiming confidentiality of personnel records, attorney-client privilege and advisory material. As a result, it isn’t clear exactly how many Freeholders were subject to the accusations, how many people accused them or even the nature of the allegations themselves.

The legal fees were about equally divided between Lambertville attorney William Flahive and James Mets of the Iselin-based firm Mets Schiro McGovern. Another $5,000 was paid to the Gebhardt & Kiefer firm in Clinton.

The review and partial denial of the OPRA records request was conducted by Paul Rizzo of the Warren-based DiFrancesco, Bateman, Kunzman, Davis, Lehrer & Flaum law firm. In a letter from the firm, Rizzo wrote that, “I have been advised that there are no records of any financial payments made to any potential claimants in this matter.”

The records that were released reveal that both Mets and Flahive submitted reports regarding the claims. Those reports, as well as the contents of about 70 emails, memos and letters between the attorneys, county Human Resources Director Brad Myhre, Freeholders Suzanne Lagay and John King and county Chief of Staff George Wagner were all withheld.

Records reveal there were three separate investigative reports. The first was dated June, 2015; the other two were in January and September of last year. The reports themselves weren’t released.

Also kept secret are what appears to be at least two agreements “with employee, appointee or official,” one from 2015 and another from last year.

Work performed by the attorneys also included emailing and speaking with potential witnesses, reviewing corrective actions policy, reviewing an insurance policy, drafting notice letters to employees and “email subject’s counsel re: agreement.”

Lawyers were also paid to “review social media with potential impact earlier resolution.” A lawyer’s bill from 2016 referenced “memo re: free speech and public concern.”

The information released doesn’t reveal whether the complaints have been resolved or whether they remain ongoing.

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