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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Joseph Catanese, a former New Brunswick Police Director who is now a City Hall attorney, once left a loaded firearm in the glove box of his vehicle, and parked in a public garage for six hours, only to return and find the deadly weapon had been stolen, according to multiple sources.
"Yeah that was when his gun was stolen from his car," said one law enforcement source familiar with the matter. "I believe it was in the glove box not correctly stored as the statute reads."
Another source says it was a Kimber .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun, a valuable weapon.
The incident occurred on June 2, 2013, but it is now the subject of a Law Department investigation.
About one month later, Catanese refused to say what was stolen from him during a phone interview.
"I have no comment to you," said the ex-Director, reached at his office at the Shamy & Shamy law firm in July 2013. "I was the victim of a crime and it's something that is personal and not something that I'm going to comment on to you or to anyone."
Thanks to a 1997 law that allows retired police officers to carry firearms in the state, Catanese is one of a handful of city residents who can still carry a concealed firearm while he works his private job and goes about his private life.
"The retired law enforcement officer permit to carry a handgun law was enacted to help make our streets and communities safer," reads NJ State Police (NJSP) website, which stresses that retired officers should use the "same professionalism and good judgment demanded during their law-enforcement careers."
If it's true that the gun was left loaded and in the glove box of Catanese's car, regardless of whether or not it was locked in there, Catanese would appear to have run afoul of New Jersey law.
According to the NJSP webpage on transporting firearms, "all firearms…shall be carried unloaded and contained in a closed and fastened case, gunbox, securely tied package, or locked in the trunk of the automobile in which it is being transported, and in the course of travel, shall include only such deviations as are reasonably necessary under the circumstances."
"The firearm should not be directly accessible from the passenger compartment of the vehicle. If the vehicle does not have a compartment separate from the passenger compartment, the firearm and ammunition must be in a locked container other than the vehicle's glove compartment or console."
Critics argue that the department, or perhaps the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office (MCPO), should have charged Catanese simply for the way the firearm was stored when it was stolen.
Some leveled allegations of political favoritism, citing other cases where a bail bondsman and an NJTransit police officer each suffered consequences after reporting weapons thefts to New Brunswick Police Department (NBPD).
Catanese led the NBPD from 2000 to 2008, having been named Director by Mayor James Cahill following a scandal where two city police officers were convicted for running several houses of prostitution in the city.
During Catanese's time in office, the department was sued for excessive force and for targeting and systemically violating the rights of the city's Latino residents and visitors .
Director Catanese announced his retirement shortly after the NBPD led the investigation into the suspicious suicide of the city's Water Director. That incident came amid a federal corruption investigation into New Brunswick's local government.
The former Director started working at Shamy & Shamy, and was eventually appointed to the city's Planning Board by Cahill. He resigned from the board in 2015 following a controversy over a development proposal for Mine Street, and took a job with the city shortly thereafter.
The new arrangement allows Catanese to collect a $25,000 salary as an "Assistant City Attorney," while simultaneously collecting a $104,668 annual pension.
Cahill, and all four of the Police Directors he hired–Mike Beltranena, Catanese, Peter Mangarella, and Tony Caputo–have done the same "double-dip," returning to work civilian jobs in the government but still collect their lucrative police pensions, which are in a different system.
New Jersey's pension systems are in crisis and Moody's cited the state's pension underfunding and structural deficits the reasons in their most recent credit rating downgrade, the ninth under Governor Chris Christie.
According to his financial disclosure forms filed in 2014, Catanese owns two properties on Jefferson Avenue and 50% of a home on Somerset Street through the limited liability company LIL-ROC, LLC.
Catanese also handles guardianship cases through the Shamy & Shamy firm, where Catanese takes control of allegedly incapacitated people and their property.
In his new role with the city, Catanese does not have to attend City Council meetings, unlike others who have held the same title before him.
Instead, the former NBPD Director is exclusively assigned to assisting with the city's responses to requests for public records.
"His role is somewhat limited for the time being," said Mayor James Cahill, who called Catanese a "very good lawyer."
A City Hall spokesperson confirmed Catanese works "approximately seven hours a week strictly on OPRA documents."
"We needed to get greater support in the City Attorney's Office to handle an increased number of OPRA requests that were taking up an increased amount of time," Cahill said in an exclusive interview with New Brunswick Today.
"Joe has some familiarity–actually quite a familiarity with [Open Public Records Act (OPRA) law], from his days as Police Director," said Cahill.
New Brunswick Today could only find one record of Catanese filing an OPRA request in New Brunswick. It targeted this reporter by name, seeking criminal records:
PLEASE PROVIDE ME WITH ANY AND ALL POLICE REPORTS… in which [NBToday Editor] Charles Kratovil of New Brunswick, NJ, or Hillsborough, NJ is or was listed as an involved party, either as a witness, suspect, person reporting an incident, or any other involvement in any incident occurring in the City of New Brunswick or one in which the City of New Brunswick Police Department has involvement in the investigative process.
The request, which violated many of the basic rules of OPRA requests, was denied by City Clerk Dan Torrisi. An identical follow-up request targeting Catanese, filed by this reporter, resulted in the following rejection:
"Your records request is not a proper Open Public Records Act request. The Open Public Records Act only allows requests for records, not requests for information or research. Additionally your request is overly broad."
Thirteen months later, Catanese was hired to work on City Hall's compliance with the OPRA law. Many of the OPRA requests the city receives come from this newspaper, and many also deal with the police department Catanese once led.
Catanese's boss, in more ways than one, is City Attorney TK Shamy.
"I would imagine it was secured in the vehicle in some way, but I don't know any of the details about this," Shamy said after the allegations were first made public at the Council meeting.
Shamy employs Catanese as "Of Counsel" at his private law firm, and also supervises Catanese in his government position.
According to the American Bar Association, the term "of counsel" describes a "close, personal, continuous, and regular relationship" between a firm and a lawyer.
Shamy defended his Of Counsel in a February 11 letter to the City Council, but was also the first public official to admit that it was indeed a firearm that was stolen from Catanese.
"His motor vehicle was entered unlawfully and his personal property, a firearm, was stolen," wrote Shamy.
"My investigation to date reveals that at all times relevant to this incident, Joseph Catanese has been in compliance with all applicable sections of the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice."
Shamy's investigation concluded that no laws were broken, that Catanese's firearm was somehow "secured," but the letter to City Council was silent on what kind of weapon it was and whether or not it was loaded.
"Had the allegations made publicly about Mr. Catanese been deemed to have merit, the matter would have been referred to the appropriate authorities," wrote Shamy.
For his part, Mayor James Cahill defended the dual relationships between Shamy and Catanese.
"No, I don't see that as a problem," said Cahill in response to a question about Shamy and Catanese, and their simultaneous public and private dealings.
"If you're the boss of somebody in one situation, what difference would it make if you're the boss of somebody in a different situation?"
Both Cahill and Shamy have served as Assistant City Attorneys in the past.
Shamy has been with the city since 1987, when he worked alongside Cahill in the administration of ex-Mayor John Lynch, Jr., who served a jail sentence after being convicted in a corruption case.
Cahill promoted Shamy to the city's top attorney position in January 2015, but also created a new "Special Counsel" role for longtime Lynch ally William Hamilton. Shamy says he hired Catanese as soon as possible.
Shamy has served as the Chairman of the New Brunswick Democratic Organization (NBDO) for the better part of a decade, while Catanese most recently served as Treasurer for Mayor Cahill's campaign fund.
Cahill, who took over for Lynch in 1991, won re-election to an unprecedented seventh term as Mayor, facing no opposition in either the primary or the general election in 2014.
"While I recognize the seriousness of the concerns expressed… I have concluded that no law has been violated by Mr. Catanese," Shamy wrote. "Rather, Mr. Catanese was the victim of a crime."
Shamy's letter insists "the weapon was secured in the vehicle," citing a police report, but no further specifics are provided in the letter and this newspaper was unable to obtain the complete report.
One person who claims to have the report on his desk is NBPD Captain JT Miller.
"It's on my desk," Miller told the City Council. "It's not my priority. I'll get to it when I get to it."
"As with any case, you have to take all the facts and look at the entirety of the circumstances," he had told New Brunswick Today in a phone interview.
New Brunswick Today gave him the case number and he agreed to look into it.
But one day later, in front of the City Council, he still was not ready to address the incident from 2013.
"I'm not going to play into [this reporter's] hypotheticals," Miller told the Council. "I'll research it and see if there's any violation."
"I'll definitely have an answer by the next Council meeting."
The police department itself has still not weighed in on the specific allegations about Catanese, but if he were an employee of the NBPD at the time, it's possible that he would have violated department policy.
"Firearms shall never be left unsecured," reads the NBPD firearms policy.
"This includes while at your usual place of abode or at work. Unattended firearms must be minimally secured with a trigger lock, barrel lock or similar device, or stored within a locked safe or similar receptacle when not being worn."
But, the policy would not apply to the 2013 incident. Shamy's letter made it a point to mention that Catanese was not employed by the city at the time of the theft.
New Brunswick Today had to fight just to get a"case report summary" back in July 2013, and had to settle for a redacted version of it.
"Do you know who this is?" asked one of the clerks at the NBPD Records Department.
The staff reluctantly gave up the a one-page document in July 2013, but the part that indicates what property was stolen was blacked out, as well as Catanese's address, sex, and "DOB/age."
According to the document, NBPD case #2013-00020951 was an investigation into a "theft from motor vehicle" on June 2, 2013, as well as "burglary by entering structure." And Catanese was indeed the victim.
The report was produced by NBPD Officer Henry Davis, who was hired early in 2001, early in Catanese's tenure as Director.
The report indicates the scene of the crime only as "church st." It says the incident was reported at 8:08pm, and that the property was stolen between 2:00pm and 8:00pm.
That matches up with other stories that indicate it took place a public parking garage operated by the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA).
The agency's Lower Church Street parking deck fits the description, but the agency's top executive says they have no record of a theft in that location.
"We have no record of an incident in our garages on that date," wrote NBPA Executive Director Mitch Karon, cautioning that we should "keep in mind that patrons may call police instead of contacting us so we would not be notified thus no incident report filed."
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.