Spotswood police superiors file tort claim notice against borough officials

 

SPOTSWOOD – Police Chief Michael Zarro and Capt. Philip Corbisiero have filed a tort claim notice in which they allege Spotswood Mayor Edward Seely has committed acts of misconduct and harassment, and created a hostile work environment.

Attorney Gina Longarzo, who is representing Zarro and Corbisiero, said, “In layman’s terms, a notice of tort claim is used to place a public entity on notice of what a claimant will be suing for and provide the entity with a pre-litigation opportunity to remedy the misdeeds and basically fix the situation to avoid actual litigation in the courts, which will be at the taxpayers’ expense.”

The Spotswood Police Department hired Zarro as a patrol officer on May 1, 1995. He was promoted to chief in 2014. Corbisiero was hired in 1994. He was promoted to captain on July 20, 2015, according to the notice, which Zarro said was filed April 1.

The notice alleges that Zarro and Corbisiero have been subjected to harassment, a hostile work environment, heightened scrutiny, defamation, contractual interference, age discrimination and retaliation by municipal employees.

Specifically, Zarro and Corbisiero have suffered these actions at the hands of Seely and Business Administrator Dawn McDonald, who have worked in tandem to jeopardize their positions in the police department and the future of their careers in law enforcement due to personal, retaliatory motives, according to the notice.

“My entire 27-year law enforcement career has been navigated by a moral/ethical compass with coordinates firmly locked on honor and integrity,” Zarro said in a prepared statement. “I look forward to the appropriate litigation of my complaints because the truth in these matters, overwhelmingly and most assuredly, favors me.”

According to the notice, as far back as November 2007, Seely, who was then a member of the Borough Council, first began to develop disdain for Zarro after the officer led an internal affairs investigation of Seely’s colleague and friend, Patrolman Louis Sarti.

Seely actively tried to circumvent the investigation by obstructing then-Police Chief Karl Martin’s efforts to conduct the investigation, according to the notice.

Seely’s contempt for Zarro continued on Oct 9, 2009, when Seely’s son, Edward Seely Jr., was in an “at fault” motor vehicle accident after striking a father and his 8-year-old son in a parking lot, according to the notice.

After officers issued Seely Jr. a ticket for careless driving, in accordance with proper protocol, Seely attempted to strong-arm the officer on scene to dismiss the ticket. When that did not work, Seely marched into police headquarters and demanded Corbisiero do the same, according to the notice.

Corbisiero refused to dismiss the summons; Seely expressed his pleasure with Corbisiero and left police headquarters, according to the notice.

On or around Oct. 14, 2009, Seely demanded that Zarro dismiss the ticket. Zarro refused, noting that to do so would be a blatant violation of department policy and illegal, according to the notice.

Seely ignored Zarro’s recommendation not to visit the victim at his home, attempting to tamper with a witness by pressuring the man not to testify in court against Seely’s son. The individual later approached Zarro in his capacity as internal affairs commander to complain of Seely’s inappropriate behavior. Seely had also illegally contacted the municipal court judge about fixing the traffic tickets, according to the notice.

In 2013, Seely and his friend and ally, then-Councilman Curtis Stollen, tried to remove Zarro’s tuition reimbursement for the doctoral program courses in which he was enrolled at New Jersey City University. They also tried to force Zarro to pay for previously paid courses even though his enrollment had long since been pre-approved. Seely threatened to make Zarro pay for a year’s worth of pre-approved courses in retaliation for the investigation against his son, according to the notice.

On or around July 27, 2014, Seely’s son was in another at fault collision which resulted in the issuance of a careless driving summons. Seely again tried to force the issuing officer to dismiss the ticket in violation of police department rules and regulations, according to the notice.

Corbisiero’s involvement with the issuance of tickets to Seely’s son made him another target of Seely’s, the officers claim.

Seely was instructed by the former chief to obtain information from Corbisiero regarding the promotion process and a then-pending lawsuit alleging biased selection processes within the police department. In retaliation for Corbisiero’s involvement with the tickets, a lower ranking officer whom Corbisiero had supported saw his score depleted during the promotion process, according to the notice.

In early 2015, McDonald, the business administrator, targeted Corbisiero, complaining of his purported “disengagement” during conversations pertaining to police activities. McDonald made this comment seeking information pertaining to a supervisory investigation against one of Corbisiero’s officers, a confidential internal affairs matter about which she had no right to demand information or to manipulate, according to the notice.

McDonald accused Corbisiero of “double dipping” into the overtime pool and defamed him by claiming he was engaging in criminal behavior for working extra hours with utility companies, when in fact, all officers, including the captain and chief, were entitled to the same, according to the notice.

McDonald’s harassment of Corbisiero continued via email where she peppered him with messages regarding these bogus allegations, according to the notice.

In January 2017, Seely instructed Zarro to prepare a proposal for cross-departmental collaboration and a paid shared services contract with the Helmetta Police Department, which was experiencing a strain on officers and resources. Seely provided no guidance or parameters besides capping the proposal at $500,000 per year and requiring a completed draft within an arbitrary and punitive 14-day turnaround, according to the notice.

On or around November 2017, Seely took Zarro to lunch and tried to offer him a $20,000 raise (or bribe) in exchange for agreeing to oversee the takeover of Helmetta and to remain silent and not voice any objections about the police department not receiving additional income for the extra policing on the shared services contract. Zarro refused and continued to object to and expose the impropriety of Seely’s proposal, according to the notice.

The tort claim notice also alleges that Seely and McDonald used harassment tactics against Zarro and Corbisiero, making it difficult for them when their employment contracts were being negotiated.

On or around Nov. 8, 2018, while negotiations were still ongoing, Seely allegedly threatened to punch Zarro after Zarro discussed approaching the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office regarding McDonald’s inappropriate targeting of Corbisiero, according to the notice.

Zarro and Corbisiero reported Seely and McDonald’s harassment in accordance with the police department and/or borough policies to their supervisors – the prosecutor’s office, according to the notice.

Seely said he received the tort claim notice on April 5. He said that due to possible pending litigation, he had no further comment.

McDonald said, “I deny the allegations made against me; they are false. Since this matter is a subject of pending litigation, I will not comment any further.”

Corbisiero could not be reached by press time.

Longarzo said after a notice of tort claim is filed, the claimant has to wait six months before he can file suit for any of the tort causes of action, which is sometimes referred to as the “cooling off period.”

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.