By John Burton
FREEHOLD—Both sides in the political and legal imbroglio pitting Republican Monmouth County Freeholder John Curley against his fellow GOP freeholders and other county officials continue to be surprisingly tight-lipped for politicians – at least until this Friday when the matter may be heard in public.
The combative and embattled Curley, who is facing various unspecified allegations for sexual harassment from a county government-conducted investigation, went on the offensive this week, appearing in federal court in Trenton looking to halt some of the measures leveled against him – with both sides proclaiming victory after the judge’s ruling.
Neither Curley nor the other four freeholders are speaking publicly about the tug-of-war between them. Curley didn’t return a phone call or text message seeking comment; Jennifer Nelson, the county director of communications said the freeholder board wouldn’t be releasing any statements until the scheduled public hearing at 4 p.m. on Friday. Their lawyers, however, offered brief statements after hearing from U.S. District Court Judge Brian R. Martinotti on Monday, Dec. 4.
“Today Freeholder Curley achieved his objectives in federal court,” said Angelo Genova, Curley’s attorney, late on Monday afternoon, in part in an email response. “He welcomes the opportunity to defend his good name and establish that he is the target of political retaliation for his good deeds in the public interest.”
“On behalf of my client, the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders, we are pleased the court has affirmed the ability of the freeholders to conduct the business of the county and to address the pending time sensitive items,” said attorney Jonathan Testa, the freeholders’ special legal counsel, in an emailed statement.
Those time sensitive items involve presenting a report on Curley’s alleged behavior and updating the county’s official policy regarding sexual harassment. “To not address and strengthen sexual harassment policies and expectations for all of our employees would be irresponsible, especially at this time,” Testa said.
It would appear that county officials are looking to address the allegations facing Curley as swiftly as they can, given the torrent of news surrounding high-profile men in positions of authority in the media and politics who have been accused of inappropriate behavior, from harassment to sexual assault, which has given rise to the #metoo movement.
It is safe to assume that the other four freeholders – two of whom are women – don’t want to leave themselves open to criticism that they failed to respond in an effective and timely fashion.
Curley had been looking to overturn county officials’ decision to prohibit him from entering county property, specifically the Hall of Records, 1 Main St., where freeholders keep their offices; not allowing him to speak to county employees in any official capacity, including his own confidential aide, until the resolution of a meeting with county officials that could result in Curley being formally censured; and hoping to block the release of the county investigation into the allegations, which is currently sealed, due to the sensitive and confidential information.
The judge overturned those provisions, allowing Curley to continue to work as a county elected official and granted him access to his office to draw his salary.
The federal judge, on the other hand, is permitting county officials to proceed with their scheduled closed-to-the-public executive session, followed by a public freeholder meeting on Friday, where the report’s findings will be discussed and which will likely include a vote on a formal censure for Curley.
Curley’s federal suit names freeholders Thomas Arnone, Gary Rich, Lillian Burry and Serena DiMaso as defendants. The suit also includes as defendants county legal counsel Michael Fitzgerald and Teri O’Connor, county administrator. The lawsuit raises a number of allegations related to the county officials’ response to Curley’s purported behavior arising from an as yet unspecified incident from an unidentified alleged victim that triggered the investigation. It charges the officials with denying Curley’s First Amendment freedom of speech rights and due legal process, among other allegations.
What can be gleaned from Curley’s complaint is that the investigation arose from “an uncorroborated complaint about an off-color comment Plaintiff allegedly made at a parade.”
Fitzgerald and O’Connor initiated an investigation, assigning a retired Superior Court judge to undertake the probe that took roughly five months.
Attorney Genova argues in his court filings that the investigation itself is tainted given it has no legal standing. According to Genova, the investigation could only be authorized by a freeholder board resolution and not by two politically-appointed county employees.
“Yet, seemingly without the authorization of the Board, Fitzgerald and O’Connor hired an outside investigator, with the cooperation of the ‘Office of Professional Standards’ – an office that appears to have been created without Board approval,” contrary to state statute, Genova’s complaint alleged.
The investigation apparently covered a more than six-year period – Curley has been a freeholder for just about eight years, having been elected to three three-year terms – and Genova maintained, focused “extensively on allegations that appear to have been made by Freeholder DiMaso, one of the plaintiff’s political rivals.”
DiMaso has been a freeholder since 2012, when she was appointed to fill a board vacancy, winning a full term in 2013 and being re-elected in 2016. DiMaso last was elected to the state Assembly for the 13th Legislative District and will take office next month.
The court complaint goes on to allege Curley and DiMaso “have a longstanding political rivalry centering around a number of contentious and politically charged issues.” These charges, Genova maintained in his complaint, “were intended to damage and/or affect Plaintiff’s reputation as an elected official in the County.” Genova goes on to cast suspicion on the timing of the freeholders’ action, given Curley would be up for re-election in 2018, and presumably was planning on seeking another term.
Curley is no stranger to controversy or combative, full-contact politics, going back to his first elected position as a Red Bank Borough Council member, where he regularly went toe-to-toe, quite vocally, with then-mayor Edward J. McKenna Jr. While a Republican, Curley, a Middletown resident, had carved out a political niche as freeholder, presenting an image as a populist who always keeps the taxpayers in mind. In that role, he has had his share of differences with his GOP colleagues. He broke rank with the other Republican freeholders during a contentious debate, opposing their support of a farmland preservation application for then-Manalapan mayor Andrew Lucas. Lucas was convicted of federal fraud charges in 2014 related to the land deal.
Curley then took on the freeholders and the Brookdale Community College Board of Trustees when he uncovered financial malfeasance on the part of then-college president Peter Burnham. Burnham would be sentenced to five years in prison and Curley called for the ouster of the entire college board and openly criticized freeholders for their lack of oversight.
He even locked horns with Republican Gov. Chris Christie. In the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy Curley criticized Christie, claiming the governor was unfairly taking credit for the on-the-ground recovery efforts. Curley called Christie “a fat f—.” To which Christie, clearly no shrinking violet, responded by threatening to “f—ing destroy” Curley, according to testimony that came out during the federal “Bridgegate” trial last year.
When asked about this exchange, Curley told The Two River Times, “Yeah…I shouldn’t have called him fat.”
“Freeholder John Curley is a political gadfly,” who, “unsurprisingly, has angered the political establishment,” is how Genova characterized his client in court filings.
Curley’s federal lawsuit will proceed, Genova said on Monday.
This article was first published in the Dec. 7-14, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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