MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ — Police Chief Alan Attanasio and two senior officers have been placed on paid leave, borough officials confirmed, following a lawsuit brought by five male police officers and a female part-time clerical employee claiming sexual harassment.
The lawsuit says the harassment dates back nearly 20 years within the department and accuses borough officials of ignoring it.
The 46-page lawsuit, which identifies the borough as a defendant, but no one else by name, was filed in Superior Court on May 11.
Among numerous allegations are that Attanasio pointed a laser-sighted pistol at subordinates when he was a lower-ranking officer. The lawsuit also makes references to sex toys, use of a flashlight to touch department members’ buttocks, suggestive comments and even placing genitals on officers’ food.
It accuses two Detective Sgt. Andrew Huber and Lt. Thomas Murphy of the most offenses. It also accuses Attanasio and Jim Debbie, a former chief and current borough administrator, of ignoring the harassment.
A message left for Debbie, who served as chief from 1998 to 2014, when Attanasio took over, was not returned.
A May 12 statement posted on the borough’s Twitter account said that Huber and Murphy had been placed on administrative leave, but did not specify when the leave was effective.
Borough attorney John Post, reached via phone at his office on May 17, confirmed the leave was paid. Post confirmed a day later that Attanasio had been placed on leave May 16, after Huber and Murphy were placed on leave.
Post said Lt. Joseph Giannuzzi has been installed as the acting police chief.
Giannuzzi also confirmed his appointment to LocalSource in a May 18 phone call but declined to comment when asked about the mood or atmosphere within the department.
With the current status of Attanasio, Huber and Murphy, Giannuzzi said the department has 19 active officers.
The lawsuit was filed by officers Jeffrey Stinner, Christopher Feighner, Richard Latargia, Thomas Norton and James Urban as well as Amy Colineri, who formerly worked as a part-time dispatcher and now works as a part-time clerical employee in the department.
It makes specific allegations, such as Huber possessing and displaying a phallic toy named “Big Blue,” which he would throw at officers and wave in their faces.
Among the allegations against Murphy are that he used a flashlight to jab other male officers in their backsides and that both he and Huber would taunt other officers in a “gazing game” in which he would accuse the staff officers of staring at their groin areas and suggesting they were homosexual.
Huber was identified, with encouragement from Murphy, as placing his genitals on food, such as a soda bottle, photographing it and then after an officer ate or drank the food, showing the photograph to the officer whose food was “brained.”
Attanasio was accused of pointing his laser-sighted service revolver at three of the plaintiffs, most recently in summer 2016.
The earliest date of any claim goes back to 1999, when the lawsuit alleges that Lt. Todd Turner, who died in a car accident in 2003, commented about the size of officer’s penises. Turner was the brother of current Mountainside Councilman and police Commissioner Keith Turner.
The borough, Keith Turner and Mayor Paul Mirabelli all issued statements via the borough’s Twitter feed and website saying they first learned of the allegations in a Feb. 28 meeting with Policeman Benevolent Association attorney Leonard Schiro.
The statements said that Turner and Mirabelli directed both Post and the firm of the borough’s labor attorney, Arthur Thibault, to investigate the matter.
Post’s firm’s investigation of 10,000 emails did not find “any new evidence of any consequence,” according to the borough’s statement.
That statement also said that Thibault was unable to interview any of the complaining officers by April 24, since they did not respond to requests for interviews through Schiro.
Additionally, it said by that time the borough learned that the Union County Prosecutor’s Office had investigated some of the claims mentioned in the Feb. 28 meeting and that “the action recommended by the prosecutor had been taken.”
It did not specify the action nor who had taken it.
Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Mark Spivey said in a May 17 email that the office “does not confirm nor deny details about investigations of this nature.”
On April 25, the borough statement said, the municipality had retained former Assistant U.S. Attorney William Maderer to conduct an investigation.
It added that placing officers on leave “is not in any way designed to lend any credence to any of the allegations made in the complaint.”
And while not specifically addressing the validity of the allegations, Keith Turner chastised the plaintiffs for their reference to his brother in the suit.
“It is shameful that you dragged into your lawsuit the name of my brother, Todd Turner, who has been dead for 15 years” the statement read.
“Todd is gone and cannot defend himself. For my part I can state without equivocation that I deny any suggestion I acted in any way improperly or failed to discharge my duties and functions as an elected councilperson and as the Mountainside councilperson who is the liaison to the police department.”