MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ — The Union County Prosecutor’s Office has launched an investigation into accusations of sexual harassment and assault contained in a lawsuit brought by five male police officers and a female clerical employee, Mayor Paul Mirabelli said.
Although the prosecutor’s office has refused to confirm or deny any probe, Mirabelli said at the borough’s June 5 council meeting that the office has “begun its own investigation into allegations in the lawsuit.”
This follows a previous investigation conducted by the prosecutor’s office, which it also refused to confirm or deny, but was indicated in Mirabelli’s original statement following the filing of the 46-page lawsuit in Superior Court on May 11.
The borough, which has retained former Assistant U.S. Attorney William Maderer, is also conducting its own investigation. Mirabelli, reading from a statement at the council meeting, said the town has asked Maderer to “include allegations in the recent lawsuit, which we did not know about until the filing of the lawsuit.”
The mayor said the borough will be represented by Christine Amalfe, of Gibbons P.C. law firm in Newark, and will “as quickly as possible, remove any individual who does not represent Mountainside in a professional manner.”
The lawsuit was filed by officers Jeffrey Stinner, Christopher Feighner, Richard Latargia, Thomas Norton and James Urban, along with Amy Colineri, a former part-time dispatcher who now works as a part-time clerical employee in the department.
The lawsuit alleges behavior dating back nearly 20 years, accusing Detective Sgt. Andrew Huber and Lt. Thomas Murphy of being the principal offenders, as well as police Chief Allan Attanasio. As previously reported in this newspaper, all three were placed on paid administrative leave as of May 16.
According to state records, Attanasio’s annual salary is $150,104.
Among the numerous allegations in the lawsuit are that Attanasio pointed a laser-sighted pistol at subordinates as a lower-ranking officer. The lawsuit also makes references to sex toys, use of a flashlight to touch department members’ buttocks, suggestive comments and an officer placing his genitals on other officers’ food.
Huber is accused of displaying a sex toy that he allegedly threw at officers and waved in their faces. Westfield-based attorney Joshua McMahon, who has previously represented members of the Mountainside Police Department, provided LocalSource with a video that he said shows Huber removing the toy from a filing cabinet and waving it in an unidentified man’s face. The man in the video, who appears to be recording the incident on his phone, is Murphy, according to the attorney.
McMahon said he appeared before the Mountainside Borough Council in January 2017, and tried to show the video to members but, after a contentious discussion, Mirabelli referred him to the Internal Affairs Department or the Union County Prosecutor’s Office.
Huber was accused in the lawsuit of 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 it was, with encouragement from Murphy.
Among the lawsuit’s allegations against Murphy are that he used a flashlight to jab other male officers in the backside and that he and Huber would taunt officers in a “gazing game” in which he would accuse staff officers of staring at their groin areas and suggesting they were gay.
The lawsuit also accuses borough administrator Jim Debbie, who resigned as police chief in 2014, of ignoring the harassment taking place in the department.
Asked by LocalSource in an interview after the June 5 council meeting about the allegations in the lawsuit, Debbie said: “I have no response. I cannot respond and will not at this time.”
Asked if he knew why, based on the allegations, he had not been placed on paid leave like Attanasio, Huber and Murphy, Debbie said, “I have no idea.”
Debbie, who served as chief from 1998 to 2014, when Attanasio took over, told LocalSource the allegations in the lawsuit have not affected his ability to serve as administrator.
“Not on my job,” he said. “Not at all.”
The borough and Mirabelli issued statements via the borough’s Twitter feed and website stating that they first learned of the allegations in a meeting with Police Benevolent Association attorney Leonard Schiro on Feb. 28, 2017.
According to the borough statement, Post and the firm of the borough’s labor attorney, Arthur Thibault, investigated the matter, and 10,000 emails did not reveal “any new evidence of any consequence.”
The statement also said that, by that time the borough learned that the Union County Prosecutor’s Office had investigated some of the claims from the Feb. 28 meeting, “the action recommended by the prosecutor had been taken.”
LocalSource has been told by a source that two borough police officers were suspended at that time at the recommendation of the prosecutor’s office.
Mirabelli also announced at the council meeting that the borough has hired former New Jersey State Police Superintendent Joseph Santiago as a consultant. He has “an extensive track record of reforming and reorganizing municipal police departments throughout the state.”
Post said Santiago, who has previously served as police director in Newark, Trenton and Irvington, will be paid $250 an hour. Lt. Joseph Giannuzzi has been installed as the officer in charge.
“As I’ve been telling everyone, the allegations in that lawsuit don’t reflect my values, they don’t represent the values of Mountainside,” Mirabelli said after the June 5 council meeting. “So, it’s going to be our job to, No. 1, investigate it, take whatever corrective action we feel is necessary.
That’s one of the reasons, aside from the lawsuit, we’ve hired Joe Santiago, who is a consultant, to come in and work with the police department and try to make sure the pride we have in our police department is going to continue.”
— Staff Writer Rebecca Panico contributed to this report.