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Police & Fire

Officers sue Hudson sheriff, others in federal court

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

ONLY ON CLIFFVIEW PILOT: A group of officers is suing Hudson County Sheriff Juan Perez, his chief, and other department brass in federal court, claiming they were retaliated against because they didn’t support Perez’s re-election campaign last November.

Because they backed Undersheriff Frank Schillari for the job, the officers were “treated substantially less favorably than similarly situated political supporters” of Perez, their civil rights suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Newark, alleges.

For instance, the suit says, an officer who didn’t support Perez was disciplined based on the single word of a discredited witness, while documented ties between Chief John Bartucci and a reputed Genovese crime family soldier were ignored.

Convicted loanshark Michael DaPuzzo has been living rent-free in Bartucci’s South Florida condo since October, 2000, after having a similar arrangement with Bartucci in Hoboken, court records show (SEE: Hudson sheriff’s chief files for bankruptcy, omits $90G Florida judgment).

Perez also “deliberately denied” Lt. Thomas J. Cerwinski a shot at captain by allowing the certified list to expire, then denying him the position when it opened up, the suit charges.

What’s more, Officer Alex Pinto claims that Capt. Larry Groskopff frequently referred to Latinos as “spics” and that nothing was done when he complained — a blatant form of racial discrimination.

Perez and Bartucci also “directly and indirectly, pressured and coerced other sheriff’s officers to support Sheriff Perez’ political agenda by, among other things, pressuring them to buy fundraising tickets,” the officers allege.

“Under Sheriff Perez and Chief Bartucci’s patronage policy, those sheriff officers who did not buy fundraising tickets were regularly treated less favorably in terms and condition of their employment or otherwise retaliated against because of their political activities and association,” their suit says.

Those “irrational, arbitrary, and capricious” actions violated the officers’ First Amendment rights to political free speech, the suit contends.

“As a direct and proximate result,” it alleges, the officers are “suffering  serious mental and emotional distress, anxiety, ridicule, humiliation, indignity, loss of esteem, embarrassment, loss of civil and constitutional rights, loss of wages and fringe benefits, and loss of future employment prospects.”

The officers are seeking monetary damages to be determined by a jury, along with coverage of their attorney’s fees, as well as a court order that the alleged discrimination stop.

Hudson County Attorney Louis Zayas filed the suit on behalf of Cerwinski, Pino, and Sgt. Walter Zapoluch, naming as defendants Perez, Bartucci, Groskopff and Lt. Jose Gonzalez, as well as the Sheriff’s Office and the county.

“After two years in public office, Sheriff Perez’ political ambition to win re-election has caused a serious deterioration in police morale, thereby undermining the historical mission of the Hudson
County Sheriff’s Office to protect and serve the public,” their suit alleges.

According to the officers, Perez, Bartucci, and Gonzalez and others “have engaged in a continuing pattern and practice of harassment, disparate treatment, discrimination and retaliation against employees who complain about, resists, and/or otherwise opposes Sheriff Perez’ illegal conduct.”

Specifically, they said, the brass has initiated Internal Affairs investigations against them, “selectively” enforcing the departments rules and regulations, as one form of retaliation for supporting Schillari, “while bestowing more favorable treatment to those who are perceived to be supporters of Sheriff Perez.”

After defeating the former sheriff in 2008, Perez and his second-in-command, Bartucci, “implemented and enforced a policy of rewarding and punishing law enforcement officers based on their political patronage and beliefs,” the suit alleges.

As a result, Perez, Bartucci and Gonzalez “would routinely investigate and punish minor infractions involving plaintiff and others similarly situated employees while ignoring blatant and substantially more serious violations.

“For example, Lieutenant Gonzalez exhibited overzealous resolve to initiated disciplinary charges against [an officer] for alleged misconduct based on the single word of a discredited witness, but ignored news media coverage of an ongoing association between Chief Bartucci and a reputed Genovese crime figure, which is explicitly prohibited by the police department’s rules and regulations.”

What’s more, they contend, the Sheriff’s Office has “recklessly and/or intentionally (a) failed to have in place a well publicized and enforced anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy; (b) failed to properly train its employees regarding compliance with any anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy; (c) failed to properly supervise its employees to ensure compliance with any anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy; (d) failed to make an unequivocal commitment from the top of the organization to any anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy as not just words but backed up by consistent practice; and (e) failed to protect Plaintiffs and others similarly situated from abuse, harassment, discrimination and retaliation in the workplace.

“The actions of Defendants were taken in violation of New Jersey’s public policy against retaliating against public employees for engaging in protected political activities and associations, and prohibitions against unequal treatment in the workplace,” the suit alleges.

Neither Perez nor Bartucci, nor attorneys for the county, could be reached late Friday.

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