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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Four Cops Allege Corruption at Highest Levels

Four Hackensack officers allege corruption at highest levels
The Hackensack Chronicle by Mark J. Bonamo - March 17, 2011

HACKENSACK, NJ - Any student of Shakespeare, or of ancient Rome, knows these words well: "Beware the Ides of March." A civil lawsuit filed March 15 by four Hackensack police officers alleges corruption at the highest levels. On March 15, 44 B.C., Julius Caesar, dictator of the Roman Republic, was stabbed to death on the floor of the Roman Senate by Brutus and other co-conspirators. That brutal moment has been engraved in literature and in history as a day both decisive and consequential. On March 15, 2011, three Hackensack police officers filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Newark along with another officer, who attached additional allegations to an earlier complaint. This 38-page lawsuit, the 12th filed by current and retired Hackensack police officers since June 2009, will, in all likelihood, have serious consequences for Hackensack and its citizens. In their lawsuits, Lt. Donald Lee, Police Officers Patrick O'Connor and Allen DeLeone, and Lt. Vincent Riotto, who originally filed suit in June 2009, make a range of serious allegations against Capt. Tomas Padilla, who has been acting officer in charge of the Hackensack Police Department since the initial arrest and subsequent suspension of Chief Charles "Ken" Zisa in April 2010. In an even more grave development, the officers have also included Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli and the entire Bergen County Prosecutor's Office (BCPO) in their lawsuit. The four officers allege that Molinelli and the BCPO did not step in when Padilla allegedly failed to perform his duties as a police officer and participated in allegedly corrupt acts. The officers claim that these acts took place even though the BCPO had established a monitoring program overseeing the Hackensack Police Department in the wake of Zisa's initial April 2010 arrest and suspension, an arrangement outlined in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that was signed between the BCPO and the City of Hackensack on April 30, 2010. The monitoring program ceased after 11 months on March 11, with the assertion by Prosecutor Molinelli that the Hackensack Police Department was functioning well enough, and sufficient improvements had been made regarding police policies, rules and regulations, that county law enforcement oversight was no longer required. Hackensack Police Capt. Thomas Salcedo is also named in the March 15 lawsuit, which alleges that Salcedo acted improperly in his former role as the head of the department's internal affairs division. Padilla, Molinelli, the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office and Salcedo have all been accused by the four officers of violating their civil rights, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and protected by the New Jersey state Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) as well as the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA). Chief Zisa and the City of Hackensack have also been named in the new lawsuit.

Lee's long list of allegations

Lee, a Hackensack police officer since 1985, claims in the lawsuit that during his law enforcement career he has been "threatened with retaliation and has been retaliated against by Defendant Zisa and Padilla." According to the lawsuit, this pattern of retaliation against Lee was tied to the political careers and ambitions of both Zisa and Padilla, which were conducted while both men also served as high-ranking law enforcement officers. Zisa was a Democratic state assemblyman from 1994 to 2002; Padilla was a Democratic member of the Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeholders from 2002 to April 2010, when he left the freeholder board shortly after Chief Zisa's initial arrest in order to become the acting officer in charge of the 110-officer city police force. "Throughout his career, [Lee] has also been threatened with retaliation if he did not support Defendant Zisa's and Padilla's candidacy for State Assembly and other elected offices, as well as Captain Padilla's candidacy for Freeholder," the lawsuit alleges. Lee was made to donate money to Zisa's 2007 campaign for State Assembly, for which now-retired Sgt. Anthony Trezza was responsible for collecting campaign donations, according to the complaint. "[Trezza] . . . told [Lee] that if he did not donate money for the campaign [Lee] would not be protected and be retaliated against," the lawsuit claims. "Due to [Lee's] past experience of retaliation in 2005 [Lee] donated to the campaign in 2007 under threat of retaliation." The complaint also alleges that Lee and other police officers were subject to retaliation and intimidation generated by Chief Zisa for failing to support his preferred candidate in the June 2008 Policemen's Benevolent Association (PBA) Local 9 delegate election. The candidate not backed by Zisa ultimately won the election. In the lawsuit, Lee makes two particularly significant allegations: that an unlawful video and audio monitoring system was put in place by Chief Zisa, and that Capt. Padilla failed to aggressively investigate an incident at a Hackensack bar in which an off-duty city police officer was seriously injured.

According to the lawsuit, in May 2009 Zisa "authorized the unlawful installation of a video and audio monitoring system and recording device at the front desk of headquarters." This alleged move occurred after Lt. Vincent Riotto notified headquarters that he had recordings of possible illegal activity by members of the Hackensack Police Department, according to the complaint. In response, Zisa issued a May 6, 2009, directive stating that is was unlawful for any police personnel to carry a recording device without authorization from him. Shortly after issuing this order, "Zisa authorized the unlawful installation of a video and audio monitoring and recording device at the front desk of headquarters," the lawsuit alleges. "The monitoring device was used by many of the Chief's subordinates and Chief Zisa to listen in on conversations at the front desk including [those of] Plaintiffs Lee and Riotto." After reexamining Zisa's memo about the monitoring devices, as well as the placement of the devices, Lee complained to Zisa that the placement of these devices was unlawful and should be removed, the lawsuit claims. But at the end of October 2009, as retaliation for speaking out on this issue, Lee was removed from overtime and off-duty, part-time work details, according to the complaint. In September 2010, Lee was asked to start an Emergency Response Team (ERT) by the acting officer in charge, Capt. Padilla. This unit, led by Lee, was praised by Padilla for its performance during actions supporting the BCPO during a series of high-risk felony arrests in November 2010, the lawsuit claims. The lawsuit alleges, however, that Padilla's support of Lee ended following an early December 2010 incident during which Police Officer Richard Sellitto, who served under Lee's command, was assaulted by a bartender at the Poitin Still, a Hackensack bar, while off duty. The seriously injured Sellitto was taken to Hackensack University Medical Center following the incident, where he was put on an intravenous drip and his jaw was wired shut due to his injuries. The complaint maintains that Padilla did not want to pursue an arrest of the bartender who injured Sellitto. "[Padilla] stated without any knowledge of the details of the incident, that the incident had happened because of Sellitto's conduct," the complaint claims. "Furthermore, he stated that he did not want the bartender arrested despite knowing that there were statements from witnesses who observed the incident." "Despite [Lee's] support of Sellitto and witness supporting the arrest, no arrest was made of the bartender," according to the lawsuit. In the last week of December 2010, Lee was informed via a phone call from Padilla's office that he was being transferred from command of the ERT to the Traffic Division, the lawsuit maintains. "The transfer to Traffic was in direct retaliation for [Lee] speaking out on issues concerning the ERT and Officer Sellitto," the complaint alleges.

O'Connor alleges 'conflict and collusion' between Padilla and Molinelli

The accusations of O'Connor, who became a police officer in 1993, relate to the close ties Zisa, Padilla and Molinelli share in the political establishments of both Hackensack and Bergen County, as well as to the MOU signed between the BCPO and the city government. The lawsuit claims that at the time Padilla was appointed acting officer in charge of the police department, he was a defendant in the first June 2009 lawsuit filed by current and retired police officers against Zisa and the city "for his part in forcing police officers to donate to his campaign for county Freeholder under threat of retaliation by defendant Zisa or by Padilla himself." The complaint adds that despite Padilla's resignation from the county freeholder board to take the acting officer in charge position, "there still existed numerous conflicts of interest between Defendant Padilla's duties as a freeholder and his relationship with the [BCPO] and Defendant Molinelli as well as his independence as the OIC due to him being a defendant in the [June 2009 federal lawsuit]." The lawsuit alleges additional conflicts of interest between the BCPO and Padilla because while the acting officer in charge was a county freeholder, Prosecutor Molinelli's wife, Tammy Molinelli, reported to Padilla in a professional capacity. According to the complaint, Tammy Molinelli was the executive director for Bergen County's Work Force Management Board and reported to Padilla, who was the chairman of the board and therefore her supervisor. In the lawsuit, O'Connor specifically alleges that when he worked in the department's Bureau of Criminal Investigations (BCI), beginning in January 2006, Padilla ordered him to go into the BCI's computer, which was located in the BCI office, to locate previously used political flyers that promoted Padilla's candidacy for county freeholder. "Furthermore, [O'Connor] was ordered to pick up various campaign donations in the form of checks from police officers, unions and citizens and to record these checks [into] the BCI computer," the complaint maintains. "Furthermore, while on duty [O'Connor] was ordered to update the flyers that were on the computer's hard drive and change the date on then for new flyers and pass them out to police officers and individuals, who contributed monies to [campaign fundraiser dinners] in the past." The complaint also states that "on the BCI computer there was a list of various police officers who made campaign donations but also the amounts they had contributed." "Knowing that police officers had been retaliated against for not contributing monies to campaigns by Defendant Zisa and Defendant Padilla, [O'Connor] followed the defendants' orders in fear of being retaliated against and losing his job." According to the lawsuit, in September 2007 and September 2008, O'Connor was in charge of Padilla's main campaign fundraising dinners. "O'Connor was told to keep an inventory of the tickets being sold and the money that came in for the campaign," the complaint alleges. "[O'Connor] observed campaign contributions by police officers and citizens being made during the course of business in the HPD headquarters . . . in fear of losing his job and/or being retaliated against [O'Connor] obeyed Padilla's orders." In June 2010, O'Connor expressed his concerns about the alleged fund-raising related issues to the BCPO, who taped the interview, according to the lawsuit. "No action was taken by that office knowing the allegations rose to a level of official misconduct of Padilla," the complaint alleges. "As a result of [O'Connor's] complaint against Padilla, [O'Connor] . . . was harassed . . . and was transferred from his administrative position in traffic in September 2010 to perform duties as a traffic officer on the road," the lawsuit maintains. "While . . . Padilla was the OIC, the . . . listed complaints were made to the [BCPO] yet no action was taken by the BCPO against Padilla, which further demonstrates the conflict and collusion between the two offices and parties," the complaint adds.

Other HPD officers allege retaliation, despite BCPO presence

DeLeone, a city police officer since 2002, alleges in the lawsuit that he experienced retaliation from Zisa and Padilla because of his open support of now-PBA Local 9 President Anthony Ferraioli in the May and October 2009 union elections. According to the lawsuit, DeLeone attended a disciplinary hearing for Ferraioli in January 2010. "It was well known in the Hackensack Police Department that Chief Zisa disliked Ferraioli," the complaint claims. "He even stated that he would eat a coffee cup before making him sergeant. Defendant Zisa, as part of a scheme to discredit Ferraioli, instituted a number of disciplinary charges against him. It was with this background that . . . [DeLeone] attended the hearing. At the time of the hearing, Chief Zisa was present and observed [DeLeone] at the hearing." Shortly after the hearing, DeLeone noticed that his shift had changed to one that is considered "an undesirable shift and generally assigned to new officers," according to the complaint. "After Defendant Padilla was appointed OIC of [the] HPD, he removed [DeLeone] from the ERT in August 2010 and denied [DeLeone] 'extra duty work' during the summer of 2010 due to [DeLeone's] support of Ferraioli," the lawsuit maintains. Riotto, who is also a plaintiff in the original June 2009 police officer federal lawsuit against Chief Zisa, the City of Hackensack and other superior officers and the city, claims in this latest lawsuit that he submitted a letter of complaint to the chief stating that Capt. Salcedo gave a false address to establish residency in 1992 when Salcedo applied to be a Hackensack police officer. Riotto also complained in the letter that Salcedo was using Padilla's address with Padilla's permission, according to the lawsuit. Riotto was suspended in May 2009 at the direction of Chief Zisa, a move Riotto maintains was in retaliation for recording conversations of various police officers due to the corruption and hostile work environment in the city police department. When he sought reinstatement in June 2010, after Padilla was installed as acting officer in charge, Riotto was not allowed by Padilla to return to work, despite the need for additional supervisory officers, the lawsuit claims. Riotto ultimately returned to work in December 2010, when he was demoted from lieutenant to sergeant. Riotto was ultimately found guilty of the charges filed against him by Zisa after a November 2010 hearing by James Murphy, a retired Superior Court judge and a "friend of Chief Zisa and the Zisa family [who] was appointed administrative judge for the hearing," the complaint alleges. "By their failure to dismiss false disciplinary charges against [Riotto] and their failure to properly investigate harassment and retaliation directed at [Riotto], Bergen County and the BCPO and Defendant Molinelli have condoned and ratified the illegal conduct of . . . Zisa, Padilla and Salcedo," the lawsuit claims.

Hackensack reacts to latest legal bombshell

Prosecutor Molinelli declined comment about the new lawsuit, stating that he had neither received, nor read, the complaint and therefore could not make any statements about its content. However, Molinelli did refer to the April 30, 2010, MOU signed between the BCPO and the City of Hackensack when asked about the complaint. "We have no control over the administrative proceedings," said Molinelli, in an apparent reference to a line in Paragraph 8 of the MOU. "Any [internal affairs] matters currently pending as a municipal investigatory matter shall not be affected by this Memorandum, as they are functions of the city government," the line in the MOU reads. Neither Padilla, nor Zisa could be immediately reached for comment by press deadline. Salcedo declined comment about being named as a defendant in the lawsuit, stating that he had not yet read the complaint and therefore could not address its contents. City Manager Stephen Lo Iacono, while noting that he had yet to read the lawsuit, expressed determination to continue the city's policy of contesting any and all lawsuits filed against it. "The City of Hackensack will continue to defend itself if we feel, as we have with all of the other lawsuits, that they are frivolous charges," Lo Iacono said. "Prosecutor Molinelli is the chief law enforcement officer for the county, and I certainly have an awful lot of respect and faith in what he says." City Attorney Joseph Zisa, while also noting that he had yet to read the lawsuit, also stated that the city would stay the course in terms of defending the city against any legal challenge. "The City of Hackensack, as with every litigation, whether it involves the police department or any other type of litigation, we will always defend every lawsuit vigorously," said City Attorney Zisa, who is Chief Zisa's cousin. "We have in the past, and we will continue to do so." Mayor Karen Sasso could not be immediately reached for comment. However, at the March 7 5th Ward town hall meeting sponsored by the city government, Sasso praised Padilla's effort as acting officer in charge of the police department, saying that he had performed well in a "very difficult situation." But Councilman John Labrosse expressed serious concern about the latest lawsuit and its potential effect on Hackensack and its residents. "It comes as no surprise to me. Where there's smoke, there's fire," said Labrosse, who noted that several police officers had indicated to him that more lawsuits were coming. "Anytime the City of Hackensack gets sued, you're basically suing the City Council . . . because we are, in fact, the representatives of the people. We're the front line." State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), who represents Hackensack and who is a longtime political foe of Chief Zisa, looked to an alternative future for the city's police department in light of the latest lawsuit. "I would suggest that maybe there should be a continuing, outside monitor at the Hackensack Police Department," Weinberg said. "And to keep everybody's confidence level at the highest, maybe the monitor should be from a state agency rather than a county agency." Mark Frost, the Philadelphia civil rights lawyer who is representing the four officers in the March 15 federal lawsuit, and 17 of the 25 Hackensack police officer plaintiffs in all 12 lawsuits, spoke to what he believed is the root cause of the police department's continuing legal and leadership crisis. "It all started with Zisa, and having Padilla there just perpetuated the unlawful conduct that has been ongoing in the department," Frost said. The lawsuit filed by Frost on behalf of his clients just happened to fall on March 15, the Ides of March, about which a seer in 44 B.C. had warned Caesar. Now, Frost warns of another historical moment that he believes will bring fateful consequences to Hackensack. "You need someone to take the leadership of the Hackensack Police Department who is not affiliated with Zisa or Padilla," Frost said. "Certain individuals actually deserve to be defendants, and they deserve whatever results occur from these lawsuits." E-mail:

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