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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Taxpayers as far away as Pompton Lakes are sharing a growing, multi-million dollar financial burden to fund a team of lawyers representing New Brunswick's Mayor and top police brass in two serious court cases.
In 2012, four African-American police officers filed lawsuits claiming they were discriminated against by their corrupt bosses.
Now, after five years of preparation and posturing, one of the two New Brunswick Police Department (NBPD) cases has been settled.
The cases show two types of discrimination within the embattled police department: one based on race, where a "white majority" in power aggressively scrutinizes and intimidates people of color on the police force, and another based on politics, where officers who donate their time or money to seven-term Mayor James Cahill are rewarded, while those who don't are punished.
At a total cost to taxpayers of well over $2 million so far, most of that money has gone directly to lawyers on the defendants' payroll, including four attorneys assigned to Cahill, and two more for the city's controversial Police Director, Anthony Caputo.
Both Cahill and Caputo were slated to testify in one of the cases, but plaintiff and former NBPD Lt. Steven Middleton settled in exchange for a $172,000 check on November 29, the second day of the long-awaited trial.
Middleton, who left the force in 2013 and became a teacher at Asbury Park High School, was the only witness to testify.
He was not cross-examined by any of the numerous lawyers representing the government and its officials.
The city filed a motion for a mistrial after just one hour of direct testimony from Middleton, and the case was settled with no further witnesses being called.
The government's legal representatives argued that the jury had been "tainted" and "contaminated" by some of Middleton's statements that were made over their own objections.
Four men and four women had been sworn in as jurors on November 27, and the lawyers for both sides gave their opening statements the following day.
But on day two of the trial, they were brought in only to be told the case was resolved and then dismissed by Judge Vincent LeBlon.
LeBlon had indicated he expected the trial to last roughly two weeks. But attorneys for the city questioned that timeline after taking issue with the testimony from Middleton.
The case was previously assigned to Judge Arthur Bergman, who dismissed Middleton's claims of a hostile workplace environment before stepping aside from the case for medical reasons.
Combined with the steep legal bills, Middleton's $172,000 settlement puts the total cost to New Jersey taxpayers at well over $2 million for the two civil matters.
But the costs likely won't stop there. The city and its "self-insurance" fund are also paying another team of lawyers to face off with the legal representatives of three African-American police officers who filed their own civil lawsuit that has survived since 2012.
"As part and parcel of the political patronage system which infects the police department and possibly the whole city government, political favoritism and punishment of the disloyal have been a predominant theme in the operation of the New Brunswick Police Department for many years," reads that lawsuit.
The suit was filed less than a week after Middleton's, and both cases went on to overshadow the troubled department and Cahill's controversial administration.
One of the officers suing, Maurice Finney, was later promoted to Sgt., while another, Arthur Anderson, has since retired from the NBPD after allegedly being retaliated against for filing the suit.
The third, Tony Ingram, remains a patrolman on the 150-member force.
"For at least 20 years, political control of the City of New Brunswick has been exercised by a political machine which is now headed by the Mayor of the City," reads their suit, the filing of which marked one of the first major stories ever broken by this newspaper.
Costs in both matters are being covered partly by a government-run "JIF," the Middlesex County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund (MCMJIF), which spreads the costs of settlements, lawyer bills, and other claims against their 25 members.
But don't let the name fool you. Though most of its members are governments that hail from Middlesex County and its monthly board meetings are held in Old Bridge, the MCMJIF includes public agencies covering parts of seven different New Jersey counties.
As we reported earlier this year, the New Brunswick City Council also signed off on spending over $341,000 in money directly obtained from city taxpayers on additional lawyers for Caputo, Cahill, and Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin III.
Those attorneys are only defending the officials on "punitive damages" claims in the two cases, however, a fraction of the overall legal bills.
Cahill's punitive bills were the largest, with Arleo & Donahue receiving over $227,550 for the services of lawyers Timothy Donohue and Jo Ann Dobransky, who represent the Mayor in both cases.
Cahill, a practicing attorney himself, has been in office since 1991 and has not said if he will run again for an eighth term in 2018.
Meanwhile, the 25-member fund has paid Connell, Dwyer, & Lisbona big bucks for the services of law partners and relatives William T. Connell and his niece, Beth Connell O' Connor, to represent the city government, the NBPD, and Cahill in the Middleton case.
The pair was pitted against another set of relatives, the father-son duo of Donald Burke and Donald Burke, Jr.
It's not clear just how much of the $921,169 the JIF spent so far on Connell, who has spent 40 years practicing law and spearheaded the defense against Middleton's claims.
Connell made it a point to say during the settlement hearing that Mayor Cahill "did not favor" the decision, though it was unclear if Cahill had specifically "approved" it.
During Connell's statements, he initially said Cahill "didn't approve" the settlement, but then clarified Cahill had "approved it" in the span of just a few seconds. Cahill's spokesperson has not yet confirmed whether or not the Mayor approved it.
"I am authorized to settle the case," insisted Connell, who later told this reporter that the Mayor "did not override" the settlement and that he understood the move to be a cost savings.
In the other case, the fund is paying for Cahill and Loughlin to be represented by Susan K. O’Connor of the politically-connected Hoagland Longo Moran Dunst & Doukas law firm. That firm was among a handful of power players recently appointed to Governor-elect Phil Murphy's secretive transition team.
Caputo does not attend New Brunswick's City Council meetings, but the Council has repeatedly approved the bills for high-powered local attorney Steven Altman to represent him on punitive damages in the cases.
Among Altman's most well-known clients are Dharun Ravi and Joseph Spicuzzo, the county's corrupt former Sheriff.
In Middleton's case, the Council has so far approved $47,754 for Altman to represent Caputo on punitive damages, and the MCMJIF hired Michael John Stone of Stone Law Group to represent him as well.
Nevertheless, Connell spoke on his behalf during the settlement hearing, saying that he agreed with Mayor Cahill about not wanting to settle.
"[Mayor Cahill] wanted a jury to decide this case. Director Caputo felt exactly the same way," said Connell.
In the other case, where the three patrol officers allege a corrupt political pay-to-play machine, the Council approved another $42,405 from the city's coffers for Caputo's legal fees, and officials said there's no sign that the bills will stop coming in anytime soon.
In that case, the JIF is paying for Caputo and Police Captain William Milligan to be represented by Danielle Abouzeid of Dvorak & Associates, one of three firms to be involved in both of the discrimination cases.
Dvorak & Associates is the namesake of Lori Dvorak, an attorney who also happens to be the daughter-in-law of Cahill's predecessor as Mayor: former State Senate President and convicted felon John Lynch, Jr.
Between Lynch and his cousin Cahill, the same family has ruled over the Hub City, occupying its highest office since 1979.
It's not immediately clear what work was done by Dvorak's firm or how much she was paid by the MCMJIF to represent Peter Mangarella in the Middleton case.
Allegations of racism against Mangarella, who briefly served as Police Director during an early retirement for Caputo, were central to the case, and he, too, was expected to testify.
The former officer's scathing testimony focused heavily on Mangarella, Caputo, and Cahill, but none ended up making an appearance in the courtroom.
On November 28, Middleton described a slew of what he deemed to be "racial bias incidents" on the job, including receiving the racialized nickname "8-ball" from his supervisor when he first started as a cop in 1994.
Among Middleton's accusations were that Mangarella frequently used racially insensitive language, comparing him to television character Archie Bunker.
Middleton said Mangarella regularly made "inappropriate, unprofessional" jokes that showed a "disregard for minorities," including repetitive remarks that made light of an unarmed African-American man that Mangarella had shot earlier in his career.
Middleton said that, while posing for a photo during a National Night Out event, then-Lt. Mangarella quietly joked about the predominantly minority children in the Schwartz Homes and Robeson Village public housing being prone to petty theft, whispering to both Cahill and Middleton, "Check your pockets."
Middleton testified that Cahill chuckled at the comment, and that the Mayor did not admonish Mangarella.
Indeed, he went on to promote Mangarella to lead the NBPD, only to replace him with his predecessor less than two years later.
But Middleton also played a role in Mangarella's removal from the office, he says, by doubling-down on a years-old claim that Mangarella had used a Sicilian racial slur meant to disparage Black people during an official internal affairs interview.
The plaintiff was able to produce a sworn affidavit from Dean Dakin, the NBPD officer that was allegedly on the receiving end of Mangarella's racial comment: "I don't like those mulignons, either, Dean."
Dakin allegedly repeated the story to Middleton, who according to the complaint, "was warned by this fellow officer to be careful because defendant Mangarella was a racist and was out to get him."
Years later, police union officials helped to draft the affidavit for Dakin to sign, swearing that Mangarella had made the racial remark.
Frustration with NBPD leadership led to a meeting of the department's minority officers, and Middleton said it was in response to Mangarella's "tyrannical behavior" and "actions that were inexplicable."
"They approached me," said Middleton, noting that the union officials had said they would present Dakin's affidavit to Mayor Cahill.
The plan was to use it as leverage to force Mangarella to yield the NBPD throne to the recently-retired Caputo. Mayor Cahill's lawyer insists he only heard "rumors" about the racial slur, and had never seen the affidavit.
Nevertheless, Cahill replaced Mangarella with Caputo.
The move also allowed Caputo to collect a six-figure public salary for doing the same job that he left in March 2010, on top of a $115,020 annual public pension and $376,234 that the city paid him for his unused sick and vacation time.
Shortly thereafter, Mangarella settled into the Security Director position for the city's school system, a gig that pays him over $90,000 and allows him to simultaneously collect a $116,405 annual public pension.
Mangarella did not immediately respond to a message requesting his comments on the settlement of Middleton's case.
Both of the union officials mentioned in Middleton's testimony, Michael Sutton and Patrick Buckelew, as well as Dakin, were among a number of current NBPD officers that were set to take to the witness stand before the case was abruptly settled.
Middleton did not hold back during his hour of testimony, also claiming that Caputo asked him to file a sexual harassment accusation against a Black female officer who the department's leadership was targeting with selective discipline.
According to Middleton, that officer was ousted from the force one month later after failing to "qualify" to use her service weapon. Meanwhile, the department looked the other way if white, male officers failed to meet those same standards, he testified.
Middleton and his lawyers also touched on the details of a wild car chase where he was punished with major discipline—an eight-day suspension from duty—even though he was in the passenger seat during the chase.
Attorneys for Middleton stressed it was the only instance of major discipline in city history related to a vehicle pursuit, and that Middleton's punishment was twice as severe as Sgt. John Langan, the white officer who was behind the wheel.
Two other white officers, including John Drury, received a verbal reprimand for their own violations of department policy during the chase.
Donald Burke, Jr. argued that Middleton's unprecedented punishment, which adversely affected opportunities for a promotion to Captain—a key part of their case—was retaliation against Middleton for filing his lawsuit.
For years, the Middleton case has presented a predicament for Glenn Fleming, the only African-American elected official in City Hall and someone who knows Middleton personally.
Fleming took office in 2012, and since then, he's repeatedly issued what has become a familiar refrain about police lawsuits, reminding the public that, "We live in a litigious society."
"[The cases are] still pending and it's state law. We have to [pay]," said Council President Glenn Fleming on November 1, after it was revealed for the first time that the MCMJIF had spent almost $1 million on Middleton's case.
Fleming typically abstains from voting on lawyer bills for the Middleton case, but refuses to say why.
"That's none of your business," Fleming says.
Loughlin, who also serves as Chairman of the MCMJIF Board of Commissioners, admitted that the two cases had so far led to just over $1.6 million in legal bills that haven't show up on the City Council's agenda because they are being paid for by the JIF.
The revelation came during the November 1 Council meeting, where the figures of the bills from several lawyers were first made public in response to repeated questions from this newspaper.
Loughlin is represented by Christopher Adams and Kevin Buchan, both from the same firm, exclusively on punitive damages, which means the city government picks up the tab.
In addition to the lawyers city taxpayers are directly engaging, the MCMJIF has hired at least six different lawyers at four different firms to handle the non-punitive claims against the city, billing just over $1.6 million as of November 1, costs that will be spread among the MCMJIF's members.
Among those members are the New Brunswick Parking Authority, where Police Director Caputo is a board member, and the New Brunswick Board of Education, which employs Mangarella as its Director of Security.
In addition to the three Brunswick-based members, the current MCMJIF roster includes:
- Borough of Bound Brook (Somerset)
- Borough of Carteret
- Borough of Dunellen
- Borough of Jamesburg
- Borough of Helmetta
- Borough of Metuchen
- Borough of Middlesex
- Borough of Millstone (Somerset)
- Borough of Milltown
- Borough of Pompton Lakes (Passaic)
- Borough of South Bound Brook (Somerset)
- Borough of South Plainfield
- Borough of South River
- Borough of Spotswood
- Borough of Spring Lake Heights (Monmouth)
- Metuchen Parking Authority
- Middlesex County Utilities Authority (Middlesex and parts of Union)
- North Bergen Parking Authority (Hudson)
- Township of East Windsor (Mercer)
- Township of Millstone (Monmouth)
- Township of Monroe
- Township of South Brunswick
That means that taxpayers in those communities, or those who use the services of those authorities, have been providing at least some of the $2 million in legal costs for the two cases.