MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ — A Westfield-based lawyer clashed with Mayor Paul Mirabelli and borough attorney John Post at the Oct. 16 council meeting during a 15-minute exchange about the lawsuit filed by five police officers and a former dispatcher against the borough in May.
Josh McMahon, an attorney with a Westfield office, asked the four council members at the meeting if they had considered settling the lawsuit out of court “instead of using their (taxpayers’) money to hire a high-powered, very expensive law firm.”
Mirabelli interceded before Keith Turner, Rene Dierkes, Rachel Pater and Glenn Mortimer could answer, saying they have been advised by attorneys not to speak about the lawsuit.
“Not you,” McMahon said to Mirabelli. “I’m not asking you.”
“Now wait a minute,” Mirabelli responded. “Don’t say ‘Not me.’”
“I just did,” McMahon said.
“I just answered your question,” Mirabelli said.
A 46-page lawsuit claiming dozens of incidents of harassment was filed in Superior Court on May 11, 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.
According to the lawsuit, the harassment dates back nearly 20 years within the department and accuses borough officials of ignoring it. It accuses then Detective Sgt. Andrew Huber and Lt. Thomas Murphy of the most offenses. It also accuses former Chief Allan Attanasio of ignoring the harassment. Huber is accused of displaying a sex toy that he allegedly threw at officers and waved in their faces.
Earlier in the meeting, Mirabelli read a prepared statement in which he acknowledged that a motion to dismiss the lawsuit had been denied by Superior Court Judge Camille M. Kenny a day earlier. Mirabelli said that Christine Amalfe of the Newark-based Gibbons law firm had cited a New Jersey Supreme Court case in her argument that the police officers’ conduct did not constitute discrimination since they were “directed at both sexes.”
Mirabelli said Kenny accepted the borough’s arguments regarding the retaliation claims and dismissed the claims by three of the plaintiffs. The court also accepted the arguments that theref was “extraneous and irrelevant information in the pleadings and directed that the revised pleadings be filed by the plaintiff after striking some of the allegations.”
Toward the end of his statement, Mirabelli said: “This is the only thing I’m going to say at this meeting about the lawsuit.”
McMahon, who clashed with Mirabelli nearly two years ago about the allegations in the lawsuit, proceeded to ask several questions at the Oct. 16 meeting, referencing “transparency” and “accountability” and asking if the mayor and council denied any of the allegations in the lawsuit, questioning who from the borough communicates with Amalfe. Post instructed the members of the council not to answer the question because of the pending litigation.
“Mr. McMahon, you coming to this meeting and repeating allegations made in the complaint serves no purpose as far as the interests as far as the borough is concerned,” Post said. “So, the question is: Whose interests are you attempting to serve by coming to this meeting and repeating those kind of allegations?”
McMahon responded: “The taxpayer. The taxpayer.”
Mirabelli then said: “The Democratic candidates and you know it.”
Mountainside Borough Council Democratic candidates Anjali Mehrotra and Ileana Montes have been critical of the mayor and the council’s handling of the lawsuit. In a statement released Oct. 16, they said the “council’s decision to sweep these problems under the rug instead of addressing the issues head-on has already hurt Mountainside.” It also states that the borough has paid more than $400,000 in legal fees, settlements and paid administrative leave for the accused officers.
McMahon denied being connected to Mehrotra and Montes and Jake McNichol, a spokesman for Mehrotra and Montes, said in an Oct. 17 email that “Josh McMahon is not connected to the campaign in any way. We do not communicate or coordinate with him at all. The mayor and council are again trying to deceive Mountainside residents and sweep these issues under the rug.”
Referencing his appearance before the mayor and council in January 2017, McMahon asked, “what steps did you take to do anything in response to the information I brought forward?” That question was not answered by the council. At that time, McMahon attempted to show the council a video he also provided to LocalSource. He said it shows Huber removing the sex 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, the attorney alleged.
Mirabelli instructed McMahon to take his concerns about harassment in the department to the internal affairs department or the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, which did investigate several claims that became public when the lawsuit was filed.
A letter obtained by LocalSource through an open public records request details what the office investigated and the recommendations made to Attanasio, the former chief. The letter, dated Sept. 28, 2017, was signed by former acting county Prosecutor Thomas Isenhour and written by acting Assistant Prosecutor John Esmerado.
UCPO did not indict Huber for allegedly hitting a civilian in the head with the sex toy inside the police station, leaving soiled toilet paper inside an officer’s boot and touching another officer’s genitals in the police department’s locker room, according to the letter. A “sustained finding” was made with regard to the sex toy and toilet paper incidents and an “unfounded finding” was made regarding Huber’s alleged actions in the locker room.
UCPO recommended that Attanasio “consider” administrative or disciplinary action for Huber, who it said “violated” Mountainside Police rules and regulations.
McMahon declined to tell LocalSource who had retained him. However, a statement by the mayor referring to last year’s council meeting alleged that McMahon was an attorney for former Mountainside Officer Michael Pasquale.
Attanasio and Huber agreed to forego about $90,000 in accrued vacation and sick time as part of their resignation settlements with the borough. Attanasio has given up a claim to $37,918, and Detective Sgt. Andrew Huber has waived claims to $52,346, Post said at the Aug. 7 council meeting. Both men were placed on paid administrative leave after being identified in the May lawsuit.
Murphy, requested a hearing after being suspended without pay July 13, and Post said Murphy’s disciplinary hearing is scheduled for early November. The council substituted David Paris for Robert Verry as the hearing officer for that hearing at its Sept. 18 meeting. Verry had been appointed to conduct the hearing, but Mirabelli said that Murphy’s attorney had objected to the appointment.
“We are vigorously contesting any charges leveled by the town,” Robert Norton, Murphy’s attorney, said in an Aug. 23 phone interview.
Amalfe did not return calls or an email seeking comment about the Oct. 15 hearing.