Linden firefighter claims retaliation after passed over for deputy chief

LINDEN, NJ — The senior captain in the city’s fire department claimed he was “skipped” for a promotion in retaliation for filing two formal complaints against the chief.
Fred Cassel, a 31-year member of the department, said he was “disappointed” when he was not promoted to deputy fire chief. The Linden City Council voted at its Oct. 16 meeting to promote Sal Principato to the position vacated when Michael Hreha retired July 1.

Cassel said department personnel “have always been” promoted based on their scores on an exam administered by the Civil Service. Cassel was expecting to be promoted since he had the highest score in the department. Principato received the second highest score.

The council voted unanimously to hire Principato after receiving a recommendation from Chief Joseph Dooley.
Cassel, who had filed one formal complaint against Dooley in 2016 and another earlier this year, said he intends to appeal the decision.
“The promotion is effective Nov. 1,” Cassel said in an Oct. 17 phone interview. “I’m assuming probably once Nov. 1 happens and it’s official that I’m skipped, then I have to set the process in motion as far as appealing and weighing lawsuits against the city. The one thing I do know is I’ve spoken to Civil Service in the past to go to bat for me and they, basically Trenton, said there’s nothing they can do for me until I’m skipped. So now that I’m skipped, I guess they will get involved, which is a good thing.”

Cassel filed a formal complaint in or around August 2016, alleging Dooley physically assaulted him at the scene of a call. Then in February, he filed a 90-page complaint accusing Dooley of about 200 incidents of misconduct.

The city hired an independent legal team to investigate the claims. Cassel said he was interviewed about the complaint for 18 hours across three days. The investigation was apparently concluded last month, but Cassel said the findings were not made public and he doesn’t know if any action was taken against Dooley.

Cassel made several allegations against Dooley at a council meeting on Monday, Sept. 17, including that Dooley had used the N-word in the presence of black firefighters, mocked the accents of Polish and Hispanic members of the department, made anti-Semitic jokes at the expense of a Jewish firefighter and used a homophobic slur against another firefighter. He also alleged that Dooley said that if Cassel were a priest, he’d be a pedophile and once asked him if he had gone for his “free biscuit” at church. Dooley, who was sworn in as fire chief in September 2015, declined to address the accusations.

“What I’m going to suggest is that you speak to the Mayor’s Office,” Dooley told LocalSource on Friday, Sept. 21. “I’m obviously not going to comment on something that’s a personnel matter. Your best bet is to contact the mayor’s office and see what they have to say.”

When asked during an Oct. 18 phone interview about Cassel’s allegations of retaliation and to characterize the recommendation he made to the council, Dooley said the city was following appropriate Civil Service procedures, “and any further comment should come from the Mayor’s Office, as is city policy.”

The city typically has six deputy fire chiefs, but has operated with five recently; an ordinance to abolish the position left vacant when Hreha retired, reducing that number to four, was given a first reading by the council, but no second reading was held.

In an Oct. 18 phone interview with Mayor Derek Armstead he was asked if the ordinance was created to abolish the position and thus avoid the decision to promote Cassel or hire someone else — and perhaps create the perception of retaliation.

“I don’t think that was the case. I believe that council had been considering reducing the complement for some time now of the deputy chiefs,” the mayor said, adding that the council didn’t “skip” Cassel to hire Principato.

“It’s been my experience since I’ve been here, we normally go with, whether it’s the police department or fire department, we usually go with the chief’s recommendation,” Armstead said. “There may be some underlying cause or reason why the chief may have selected to go to the second candidate rather than the first, but I don’t know that. I just know that the chief’s recommendation was Sal Principato and council voted on it.”

Council President Jorge Alvarez said in an Oct. 21 telephone interview that the board had been divided on whether to promote Principato or Cassel. When asked if the council felt pressured by Armstead to promote Principato, Alvarez said, “Yes.”

Alvarez said there was a motion made in a caucus session to remove the promotion from the agenda so it could be discussed further. The council was split 5-5, with one vote to abstain. Alvarez said he, John Francis Roman, Gretchen Hickey, Rhashonna Cosby and Armando Medina often vote together, and Lisa Ormon, Peter Brown Jr., Barry Javick, Alfred Mohammed, Ralph Strano and Michele Yamakaitis tend to vote in unison.

“At that point, the mayor said, ‘You know, my belief is let’s just put it out there and let’s put it on the agenda’ because he knew his people were going to vote for it,” Alvarez said. “Everyone ended up voting for it because at that time there was nothing that could be done. Nothing.”
Alvarez said it could not be classified as retaliation, however, because the council followed Civil Service rules, which state any one of the top three scorers on the exam can be considered for promotion.

“It was the best guy with the best resume gets moved up. That was it. When they put that rule in, it changed everything. So, it was idiotic to do it. But it’s done,” Alvarez said. “By the law, we followed the law. Ethically, we didn’t do anything wrong. Morally, I think it was wrong. Morally, I think it should have been Cassel. I like both men and I think both men are qualified to do the job that was open.”

Cassel said his father was also a captain in the Linden Fire Department for more than 30 years and also was not promoted despite having earned the highest marks on the exam. He said he wanted to be promoted to the deputy chief position in his honor.

“There’s no regret on my part because, well, two things,” Cassel said. “One, I’ve told the truth. I have the truth on my side. And secondly, I’m just asking for what I earned. I came out No. 1 and I never expected to run into these problems. When I came out No. 1, I was like, ‘Good. Great for me.’ But, I never thought it was going to play out like it is. I don’t regret it. I regret it in the sense that the city of Linden, to me, has handled this totally abysmally and I regret all the hard feelings coming out now and on display. Divisions are being created inside the department. I basically have a boss I don’t speak to. It’s made matters worse.”
Principato is the cousin of John Principato, who is an independent candidate for mayor.