MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ — The police chief and one of his high-ranking officers have agreed to forego about $90,000 in accrued vacation and sick time as part of their resignation settlements with the borough in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought against the municipality.
Chief Allan Attanasio has given up a claim to $37,918, and Detective Sgt. Andrew Huber has waived claims to $52,346, John Post, the borough council attorney, said at the council meeting Aug. 7.
Both men had been on paid administrative leave since being identified in the May lawsuit accusing them of harassment. A third officer identified in the lawsuit, Lt. Thomas Murphy, has requested a hearing after being suspended without pay July 13.
Post said that the settlements with Attanasio and Huber will also result in “very, very significant” savings for the borough in legal fees, adding that if the borough had pursued legal proceedings to fire the two, each case would have cost the town about $100,000 in legal fees.
“That would be just to get to the end of the administrative process,” Post said at the meeting, referring to the cost. “That doesn’t even involve judicial review and a lawsuit, which is the next step after an administrative termination. And, bear in mind, this like all litigation, there’s no assurance that if you went through that kind of a process a termination would result.
“I mean, we have a disciplinary procedure with respect to Lt. Murphy, but if you were to say to me, ‘Can we get a guarantee here tonight that that will result in the termination of his employment?’ I can’t guarantee that. There’s litigation and, as we all know, we can’t put guarantees on litigation.”
Signatures by Attanasio and Huber the on matching 16-word resignation letters dated July 25 and addressed to Lt. Joseph Giannuzzi ended their employment with the borough, and they were removed from the municipality’s payroll as of July 20. State records show Attanasio had an annual salary of $150,104.
Giannuzzi was installed as officer in charge of the police department after the three officers were suspended May 16.
Attanasio and Huber will “cooperate with a debriefing to be conducted” by attorney Christine Amalfe, according to a copy of the settlement agreement obtained by LocalSource.
Amalfe is representing Mountainside in the lawsuit filed May 11 in Superior Court against the borough 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. The suit includes allegations of harassment and assault dating back nearly 20 years within the department and accusations that borough officers ignored it.
Among the numerous claims 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 in officers’ food.
Huber is accused of possessing and displaying a sex toy that he would throw at officers and wave in their faces. Westfield-based lawyer Joshua McMahon, who has in the past 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, McMahon said.
The Union County Prosecutor’s Office knew of the allegations about a year before the lawsuit was filed, according to letters obtained by the LocalSource through an open public records request.
A letter dated Sept. 28, 2017, details the office’s investigation and recommendations to Attanasio. That letter was signed by former acting Union County Prosecutor Thomas Isenhour and written by acting Assistant Prosecutor John Esmerado.
The prosecutor’s office decided not to indict Huber for allegedly hitting a civilian in the head with a sex toy inside the police station, leaving soiled toilet paper in an officer’s boot and touching another officer’s genitals in the police department’s locker room, according to the letter. The letter stated that the prosecutor’s office had made a “sustained finding” with regard to Huber’s sex toy and toilet paper incidents, meaning it found Huber had violated policy. Prosecutors made an “unfounded finding” regarding Huber’s alleged actions in the locker room, meaning it found insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the actions. Prosecutors recommended that Attanasio “consider” administrative or disciplinary action for Huber.
Mayor Paul Mirabelli previously said in a statement that an unspecified course of action was taken after the investigation by the prosecutor’s office. Post said he could not detail what disciplinary action was taken.
Ileana Montes, a candidate for Mountainside Borough Council, criticized the board for not pursuing legal action against Attanasio and Huber.
Montes said “ is very difficult for me as a resident to accept the fact that a resolution is going being passed accepting their retirement without taking into consideration the misconduct that has happened for so many years.”
Post replied, “The judgment was that you get to the same place, i.e. the officers’ employment has been terminated without having to cost taxpayers what would be more than $100,000 each. Each case would have been well more than $100,000. It would be $100,000 plus the benefits they were entitled to if their employment was terminated. Plus, the cost of a lawsuit if they decided to challenge if you were successful and they decided to challenge the result. And understand again, there is no sure results here. We could have spent $100,000 and wound up still having these officers on our payroll.”
In a statement dated Aug. 8, Montes and fellow council candidate Anjali Mehrotra condemned the council “for using settlement agreements to protect officers in the Mountainside Police Department from the consequences of a lawsuit alleging disgusting, dangerous behavior and double-dipping scams that went on for years.”
The candidates renewed their call for an independent investigation into the administration to determine what Mirabelli and the council “knew about the officers’ behavior, when they knew it, and why they took so long to act.”
In their statement, Montes and Mehrotra noted the absence of Mirabelli and council members Robert Messler and Wendy Fech-Caccamo from the Aug. 7 meeting.
“Many at the meeting felt their absence, which allowed them to avoid voting on the settlement, reflected the absence of leadership that allowed this behavior to go unchecked for so long,” they said in their statement.
According to Post, Mirabelli was on vacation.