Hearing airs ‘generatorgate’ details

UNION COUNTY — The long awaited story of why one county employee took home a generator for personal use during Superstorm Sandy finally came out in a public hearing late last month.

County police department employee Richard Puschel was on the hot seat during an administrative hearing held April 23, which ultimately will determine if he will have a 90-day suspension or not. That decision is still under review by the county and is expected some time in mid-June.

Puschel, a Linden resident whose public hearing was held April 23, was one of a dozen or more county employees who admitted taking home generators during the Oct. 29, 2012 storm that left most the county without power for up to 12 days.

Until Puschel’s hearing was held, the county had been closed mouthed regarding the identity of the employees involved or if they would face disciplinary action or not. The hearing itself was not publicized and few knew it even took place until last week.

A Linden council member now running in the June primary for the council president’s seat, Puschel is a 32-year employee of the County Police Department, heading up the traffic division for 16 of those years. The facility he oversees is located in Kenilworth, which happens to be where county-owned generators are stored.

Just a few weeks after the storm hit in 2012 information surfaced that a number of county employees had taken the generators for personal use at home. Although the county launched their own investigation into the matter, when the Prosecutor’s Office began an inquiry, the county stepped back.

The county did note that when the Prosecutor’s Office inquiry was completed they would take “whatever administrative actions we deem necessary.”

Two types of generators were taken home by county employees; a larger and smaller version. The larger generator – used to keep traffic signals operating during a power outage – has to be hauled on a trailer because of the weight and size, while the smaller version is easily transported in a regular automobile.

The prosecutor’s inquiry into the matter dragged on for seven months until former prosecutor Ted Romankow left office in mid-June last year. He wrapped things up the day he left with a brief announcement that his office found no “criminal wrongdoing” by any of the county employees involved in the generator scandal because most, not all, had permission from their superiors.

At this point, he said, everything was turned over to County Manager Al Faella for “administrative action,” and that was the last anyone heard publicly about the matter.

LocalSource was able to confirm who some of these employees were in the spring of 2013, including that many were high ranking department heads from the Department of Public Safety, Department of Engineering and Public Works and Facilities.
Among these employees was Puschel, who also ran against County Sheriff Ralph Froehlich for his job in the 2013 primary and lost.
That was almost a year ago and there has been no information about what administrative action would be taken other than the matter was still under review.

In fact, Puschel’s hearing was not made public but leaked to LocalSource by a county employee source.
LocalSource used the Open Public Records Act to obtain a copy of the hearing transcript, which contained approximately three hours of testimony and cross examination of not only Puschel but his superiors who contradicted statements he made under oath.

During the hearing, Rachel Caruso, an outside attorney hired by the county from Roth D’Aquanni, made it clear from the outset there was little doubt Puschel took a generator to his home without county authorization.

Making matters worse, she said, was that the County Police Department employee handed out generators to two other county employees without permission from his superiors. One was within his chain of command while the other was not an employee of the traffic department at all.

She began by explaining why Puschel was under fire for what he did.

“Of course during Superstorm Sandy, most of the county was without power for a prolonged period of time, yet Lt. Puschel took it upon himself to use county resources that could have been deployed elsewhere and resources that he only had access to in his position as a lieutenant to utilize for his own personal use as well as allow some other officers to use it for their private use,” said Caruso.

Caruso went on to explain that Puschel would defend his actions by saying that as a member of the Union County Police Department he was considered an “essential employee,” and needed the generator, but the county felt quite differently.

The attorney pointed out the entire County Police Department was also considered essential and other members of this department did not take home generators for their own personal use.

“Everyone else was using the emergency operation center as it is designed to be used, for the comforts of home, including charging all police equipment, charging private equipment, including cell phones, sleeping, showering and food,” Caruso added, noting there was no reason Puschel or any of the other individuals he gave a generator to “were any more special than anyone else that was using the emergency Operations Center.”

The attorney specifically noted the hearing was being held because Puschel “used his position improperly, took county property and used it for non-county business, namely his own personal comfort.”

As a result of this behavior, Caruso asked that the County Police Department employee receive a 90-day suspension, but John Anello, the attorney representing Puschel, felt this was unfair.

“This case is about Lt. Puschel being unjustly and unfairly charged administratively because he acted as he had to in an unprecedented emergency situation to benefit Union County,” he told Steven Merman, the Assistant County Counsel overseeing the hearing and charged with rendering a decision on the case.

Anello went on to explain that Puschel moved the generators from the county police yard in Kenilworth because that particular area was flood prone and had he not taken this action, all equipment, including the generators, would have been destroyed.

“The county would have suffered thousands and thousands of dollars in damage had he not acted the way he did,” added Anello, not fighting the fact Puschel took a generator home for personal use and allowed two county employees to do the same.

“They were in a tough spot. The county had no protocol in place for dealing with these generators or dealing with any type of emergency situation, particularly one as unprecedented as Superstorm Sandy,” Anello added, agreeing the county police officer did benefit, but the primary benefit went to the county.

“He acted to the benefit of Union County and respectfully asks that these charges be dismissed,” said Anello.
Later in the hearing Puschel would contradict his attorney about the actual cost of the generators, pointing out that this equipment was on its last legs and stating the only thing the generators were good for was recharging cell phones or radios.

Although Puschel testified there was no emergency plan in place prior to Sandy hitting the area, when Union County Director of Public Safety Andrew Moran testified, he shot that down entirely.

He revealed there not only was a plan in place, it covered every facet of what protocols were in place during such emergencies.
“It’s not specifically geared toward hurricanes, but it’s a virtual plan, flexible plan that’s able to be adapted to any state of emergency,” Moran said, pointing out that when the county knew the area was going to be hit hard by Sandy, all department heads were brought to the Froehlich building on North Avenue in Westfield where an emergency operations center was set up.

Moran also made it quite clear that Puschel would have known about the meeting, as everyone involved in emergency services would have been.
Caruso mentioned that Moran, who heads public safety for the county and lives in the area, was also without power in his home but did not take a county-owned generator home for personal use. She explained that he and other members of the county police utilized the Froehlich building to charge their cell phones and computer equipment.

She also questioned Moran about the likelihood that Puschel was aware of how the distribution of generators took place.
Moran testified that he did and the procedure was to log in requests for generators from county municipalities for the record.
He noted that although the record showed what towns received generators, there was no record of Puschel or the other two county employees recorded in the log.

Caruso then asked Moran if he participated in bringing charges against Puschel and he admitted he did, explaining the reasoning behind that decision.

“Because I think in this case generators were used at the home of police officers when so much of the public was without power themselves and that really put the department in a bad light,” the public safety director said, adding “I think it undermines the public trust.”
Moran also said he thought Puschel’s actions were “a violation of the rules and regulations of the department.”

When it was time for Puschel to be questioned, his attorney brought out that he spent 16 of the 32 years as a county employee in the traffic division. Also brought out was that Puschel was charged with handling 20 generators as head of the traffic division, the majority of which were used to power traffic signals when there was a power failure of any kind.

However, Puschel argued the diesel-powered light towers he was charged with were of “poor quality” and the electrical systems actually had started to burn out prior to Sandy hitting.

Puschel explained that this was because the light towers were purchased right after MusicFest, three or four years ago. When asked if he kept a log for a record of who received these generators, the traffic lieutenant responded “sometimes.”

Puschel threw Moran under the bus during his testimony by saying there was no emergency plan in place during Tropical Storm Floyd, Tropical Storm Irene or Superstorm Sandy. This directly contradicted Moran, who said there was definitely a plan in place.

Moran explained there was a meeting in the Emergency Operations Center in Westfield and all department heads were notified of this prior to the storm. Puschel’s view, though, was completely different.

In testimony brought out by Caruso during cross examination, Puschel claimed he knew nothing about an EOC being established in Westfield and was not aware of it until a week after Sandy hit.

“I didn’t even know they were putting one in place,” he testified, again contradicting Moran.
During cross examination Caruso attempted to bring out that Puschel was aware, and even questioned him about the Union County Police code of ethics.

Puschel admitted he knew about this code and had abided by it the entire 32 years he worked for the County Police Department. Caruso, however, tried to show that this was far from the truth.

“What gave you the right then to take a generator home that’s owned by the people of the county, the taxpayers of the County of Union, for you to use when so many of those citizens were suffering during that time?” she inquired.

“Well I had to keep my radio going. I had to keep the motoring public moving throughout Union County. Nobody else had that expertise but me. So without my radio, without my phone, the public will not be moving throughout Union County,” he told Caruso, bringing up that there were “24 generators delivered on the day of the storm and I could not find out where they were deployed, so I wasn’t depriving anybody.”
He also claimed that he had no support or contact from county superiors during Superstorm Sandy.

“We never had support over there,” Puschel said, referring to the last 32 years he worked for the county.
“So you guys didn’t know what was going on in the rest of the county, you just knew what was going on in your place and where your traffic enforcement units were going?” Caruso asked the traffic director.

Puschel responded saying the only reason he knew what was happening was because he personally drove around to different towns to see what traffic lights were out and replacing them with generator towers so the signals could power up.

He repeatedly denied initiating contact with the county emergency command center during this time, or hearing from them.
As for the generator Puschel took home, he emphatically stated that he only used it to charge his phone and radio and to also ensure a light was on in his house. Caruso quickly shot back, asking Puschel if he thought taking home a county-owned generator was a violation of his law enforcement code of ethics.

He responded that he did not.

Caruso explored this more, questioning why he did not think it was wrong.
“Because I used that generator for county purposes so I could keep this county operational and I am the only one that had a plan. I am the only one that went out there and did my job and nothing came down the chain of command. That’s why,” he said.

“So you believe there was no other plan in place other than your plan to deal with the aftermath of Sandy?” Caruso asked, and Puschel again stressed “there was no plan.”

“Why didn’t you share your plan with anyone then?” Caruso asked Puschel.
“Because I didn’t have time to share anything and they should have come up with a plan because they are senior command,” he told Caruso.
Merman, the county attorney overseeing the hearing, then had a question for Puschel.

“You continually said there was no plan, but obviously throughout the aftermath and having discussions with your director and chief, I assume you have been made aware, and certainly through the testimony we heard here today, you are aware of the emergency management plans that were at a higher level,” he asked.

“Yeah, I was never informed of any plan that was out there and a proper plan, yes,” Puschel said.
Merman also asked about after the storm and if the county had notified him where the most significantly damaged areas were so he could focus assets and bring help, but again, Puschel denied he had contact with any county official.

Caruso then asked several more questions targeting the fact that Puschel contradicted himself by saying earlier he did not know about the command center and then later testified that he told headquarters where he was hooking up traffic lights.
“Who at headquarters did you call?” Caruso asked, but Puschel said he did not know.

Merman said he would make his recommendations to the county manager in the next 30 to 45 days, which means there will be a decision in mid June.