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Water Official Accused of Covering Up Violations Has Not Been Fired

Edward O'Rourke Suspended Without Pay Awaiting Administrative Hearings
Water Treatment Plant
Edward O'Rourke was in charge of New Brunswick's water treatment plant for more than 25 years until he was suspended this month. Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A Water Utility official being blamed for covering up violations of safe drinking water standards for several years has not been fired, according to the City Council.

Instead of firing the veteran employee for cause, the city suspended Edward O'Rourke "earlier this month" around the same time the state accused him of lying on water quality reports submitted to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The DEP referred questions about why O'Rourke still has not been fired to the city government.

"You have to ask the city about that.  We can't fire him," said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna.  "We can only suspend his license, which we did."

City officials insisted they had no choice but to suspend O'Rourke without pay, but it appears he could have just as easily been fired for cause.

"Generally, yes, all employees can be fired for cause," confirmed a spokeswoman for the state Dept. of Community Affairs.  "But exactly what constitutes adequate cause may vary depending on the employee."

The DEP also fined O'Rourke $17,000 and suspended his license for five years, but he is appealing those charges according to a hearing request filed yesterday.

In the DEP hearing, O'Rourke will be represented by attorney Edward Washburne of McKenna, Dupont, Higgins, & Stone, a law firm based in Red Bank.

Washburne told New Brunswick Today that he is only representing O'Rourke in the state level hearing, and not a second administrative hearing that will determine his job status with the city.

"New Jersey law provides for an administrative hearing to review the action that was taken and we're availing ourselves of that remedy," he said.

"We'll see how this plays out," said Business Adminstrator Thomas Loughlin, who was overseeing the Water Utility when the alleged cover-ups occurred.  "[O'Rourke] is entitled to an administrative hearing at our level and at the state level."

"Maybe during one of his two hearings, maybe we will hear more of an explanation," Loughlin said at Wednesday's Council meeting.