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Fallout Continues from Lawsuit Against Mountainside; Police Chief on Administrative Leave

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MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ – Police Chief Allan Attanasio is the latest member of the police department to suffer repercussions from a complaint filed against the borough on May 11.  Attanasio, who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, was “placed on administrative leave,” on Thursday by Borough Administrator and former Police Chief James Debbie, said  Lt. Joseph Giannuzzi, who was named officer in charge of the department. 

Two other police officers, Lt. Thomas Murphy and Detective Sgt. Andrew Huber, were placed on “an administrative leave of absence,” according to a post on the borough’s website and reported by TAPinto Mountainside here

The lawsuit against the borough alleges salacious, demeaning, and potentially dangerous behavior by long-time police officers, including at least one police chief in the Mountainside department.  While the only defendant in the suit at this time is the borough, the lawsuit describes numerous bad acts by Debbie, Attanasio, Huber, Murphy,  Mountainside Mayor Paul Mirabelli and Mountainside Councilman Keith Turner.

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The lawsuit, which was filed on May 11 by five Mountainside Police Officers Jeffrey Stinner, Christopher Feighner, Richard Latargia, Thomas Norton, James Urban and part-time dispatcher Amy Coliner, has gone viral, both in print papers nationwide, on the web and on social media, since TAPinto Mountainside first reported on the story on Tuesday morning May 15. It has rattled the town and its residents, many of whom have posted comments and taken a public stance on whether the police should be supported, or not, on local social media sites.

The attorney who filed the suit, Charles J. Sciarra, of Sciarra & Catrambone, LLC was unavailable for comment, but has issued a statement on the lawsuit. “The filed complaint was thoroughly vetted before drafting, was filed in accordance with the laws of the state, and speaks for itself,” the statement reads. As for the allegations within the complaint, there would be no comment, he said.

He did have a comment on the statement posted on the Mountainside website by the governing body and referred to a YouTube video of the Jan. 17, 2017 meeting of the council.

The video, which is an official recording of the meeting, shows Westfield attorney Joshua F. McMahon's appearance before the council. Beginning at about 10:38 on the video, McMahon said to the council he wanted to tell them about “pervasive and systemic problems you have in your police department.”

He had a laptop computer with him and offered to show the council the “alleged evidence” of this misconduct and was shut down by the mayor, who said, “Report it to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office.” Mirabelli, responding to comments by McMahon said he has interest in misconduct but only “after it is properly investigated.”

Calls to McMahon, who was reported to be out of town, have not been returned. 

Sciarra said in his statement, the video, “recorded sixteen months before this suit was filed, demonstrates the disinterest of the mayor and others in hearing about issues in the police department raised by an attorney for another police officer … The suggestion these people took appropriate action when issues were brought to their attention is a legal and factual zero.” 

During a Mountainside Council meeting which took place six months later, on June 20, the council adopted two ordinances:

79-2017 Indemnifying Hearing Officer Robert Verry, and

80-2017 Indemnifying the Mountainside Governing Body.

According to Resolution 79-2017, Verry asked to be indemnified in the event a claim or lawsuit is filed against him as a result of his involvement in a “disciplinary proceeding … involving a member of the Borough of Mountainside Police Department.”

When it was introduced for a vote, only the first paragraph was read, “Having appointed Hearing Officer Robert Verry under Resolution 109-2016 this resolution will allow for the indemnification of the Hearing Officer from any claim or lawsuit arising from disciplinary proceedings during the discharge of his duties.”  

The final paragraph of the resolution reads: “… in consideration of the continued orderly and effective operation of the Mountainside Police Department and its individual officers and further in consideration of the most orderly and effective and cost effective management of the instant disciplinary proceeding, the governing body of the Borough of Mountainside does hereby agree to indemnify, defend and save harmless Robert Verry of and from any and all claims, demands, losses, expenses, attorney’s fees, settlements, penalties, causes of action, judgments, damages and/or any and all liability whatsoever that may result or be determined to be due and owing by reason of any claim arising out of his discharge of his duties as Hearing Officer. This shall remain a continuing obligation of the governing body and the Borough of Mountainside to Robert Verry until the conclusion of the instant disciplinary proceedings.

The text is similar in Resolution 80-2017, except 80-2017 references the “governance of the Borough and further in consideration of the most orderly and effective and cost-effective management of the instant disciplinary proceeding, the Governing Body of the Borough of Mountainside does hereby agree to indemnify, defend and save harmless the members of the Governing Body of the Borough of Mountainside, both in their official capacities and individually,”  

No mention is made of the type of “instant disciplinary proceedings” or the police department. The complete text of both resolutions can be found on the website here.

The previous work session minutes did not contain any reference to indemnifying Verry or the Governing Body.

Verry was appointed at the Nov. 22, 2016 meeting of the council when it approved Resolution 109-2016 “Authorization to appoint Robert Verry as a Hearing Officer.” Resolution 79-2017 notes, the effect of resolution 109-2016 is to “delegate to Robert Verry the authority of the Police Committee of the Governing Body to hear and decide matters in the aforesaid disciplinary proceedings, and that in such circumstances Robert Verry is acting as a local public employee.”  

The disciplinary hearing being referred to in the resolutions was not related to the three officers who are now on administrative leave.

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