PATERSON, NJ – Over the past six years, the City of Paterson has paid Police Officer Manuel Avila more than $520,000 not to come to work, state records show. That’s how long Avila has been on leave from his job.
During that time, Avila has accumulated extra service time that could boost his annual retirement to about $66,000 per year, according to calculations done by PatersonPress.com using the state’s pension formulas and salary records. Moreover, Avila has remained on the city’s payroll long enough during his suspension to qualify for life-time health benefits, under state pension regulations.
What did Avila do to earn such a windfall? He was accused of forcing a woman in his custody to perform oral sex on him at police headquarters. And the incident allegedly happened about 10 days after a police department psychiatrist deemed him unfit for duty, according to court testimony by a city police official.
The Avila case already has cost Paterson taxpayers more than $1.3 million and the meter is still running.
The courts acquitted Avila of criminal charges in June 2010 and the city paid $133,000 to cover his legal fees in that case. Then, in July 2011, the city agreed to resolve the woman’s civil lawsuit over the alleged incident by paying a $710,000 settlement.
In the 18 months since the settlement of the civil case, Avila has remained on the payroll and off the job, waiting for the Paterson Police Department to hold disciplinary hearings against him. The delay in the disciplinary proceedings was long enough so that Avila on January 1, 2013 reached 25 years on the job, a crucial pension milestone, according to state treasury records.
Next week, Avila’s disciplinary hearing is scheduled to begin, said Paterson Police Director Glenn Brown. “I can honestly say that I am really irritated by the delay to get this case out of the way,’’ Brown said.
When asked to explain the delay, Brown declined, saying he could not discuss such details because it was a personnel matter covered by the privacy provisions of state law. When asked about the fact that the delay was just long enough for Avila to reach the important 25-year pension milestone, Brown replied, “The pension certainly has had no bearing on the case.’’
Councilman William McKoy, chairman of the public safety committee, said Attorney General’s guidelines on the handling of police discipline do not give the governing body a role in the hearing process, which is carried out in private. McKoy said the AG’s guidelines “have become an impediment to effective policies and good government.’’
When things go wrong in cases like the one involving Avila, the city council “has to pick up the pieces and make the payment,’’ McKoy said. “But we’re not being given any authority to manage or supervise these cases as they occur.’’
Mayor Jeffery Jones said state law and labor contracts provided police officers accused of wrongdoing with protections that municipal official cannot violate. “We have to abide by it,’’ Jones said. “In some cases, you have to question what’s going on.’’
Avila’s home phone number is unlisted and he could not be reached for comment for this story. Frederic Rossi, the West Paterson attorney who represented Avila during the civil trial, declined to comment. “I am not at liberty to tell you whether I am or am not,’’ Rossi said when asked if he were representing Avila in the upcoming disciplinary hearing.
Back in 2007, city police officials almost forced Avila to resign even before the alleged oral sex incident took place, according to court testimony given by Capt. Troy Oswald, who was in charge of the police department’s Internal Affairs unit at the time.
In testimony during a pre-trial hearing in the criminal case in 2010, Oswald said he first became aware of the potential problems with Avila in March 2007, when Avila had ingested a large quantity of sleeping pills and had to be evaluated for a possible suicide attempt at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson.
Then, after spending five days at St. Mary's Hospital in Passaic for a psychiatric evaluation, Avila was directed by the city to see one of its police psychiatrists for a "fitness for duty evaluation,'' Oswald testified. Eventually, the doctor determined that Avila should not carry a gun nor be a member of the police department, Oswald testified.
But a meeting was held among Avila, Oswald, then-police Chief James Wittig, Wittig’s chief of staff Patrick Papagni and the union president at the time, Steve Olimpio, Oswald testified. During that meeting, it was determined that Avila would be allowed to stay on the job in a limited capacity until he reached 20 years of service to improve his pension, the captain testified. The oral sex incident allegedly happened days after that meeting.