Holmdel officials vote to keep administrator on paid suspension

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HOLMDEL –  Township Administrator Donna Vieiro will remain suspended from her position with pay following a vote by the Township Committee.

Viero and human resources manager Denise Callery have been suspended with pay since May 6, when municipal officials hired attorney Sean Kean to investigate an allegation  involving the two women. The allegation was that Callery had interviewed a relative for a position in Holmdel and that Viero was aware of Callery’s participation in the interview process.

On June 11 in a report to the committee, Kean reported that municipal officials and a municipal employee subsequently alleged that Viero had committed additional violations.

Township Attorney Michael Collins said Vieiro and Callery were notified on June 5 that they would be discussed by the governing body in executive (closed) session. He said they waived their right to have the matter discussed privately and requested that it be discussed in public, which is what occurred on June 11.

Kean said the “whistleblower” who filed the initial nepotism complaint against Vieiro and Callery was Jeanette Larrison, Holmdel’s former chief financial officer who resigned in April.

Kean explained that during his investigation, he interviewed Larrison, Mayor Eric Hinds, Deputy Mayor Michael Nikolis, Committeeman Rocco Pascucci, Committeeman Tom Critelli and Committeeman Greg Buontempo.

Kean described his investigation as 99% complete. A report on his findings will be released in the near future, he said.

“During our investigation, allegations of potential wrongdoing have been made against Donna Vieiro,” Kean said, adding that the additional claims made against Vieiro are unrelated to the original allegation he was hired to investigate.

Kean said the subsequent allegations against Vieiro include the following: the Vieiro discussed confidential information regarding Holmdel’s Council of Affordable Housing (COAH) plan with an individual who had a conflict of interest; the Vieiro failed to properly advise the Township Committee of payment to contractors and engineering firms on projects related to the COAH plan; the Vieiro “forced” Larrison to issue checks improperly; and that Vieiro authorized a Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement to an unauthorized individual for personal property damage.

It is also alleged that Vieiro acted without the approval of the governing body and placed a $2.1 million expenditure item for a turf athletic field and town pool club on an agenda; that Vierio failed to properly advise the governing body about payment to contractors and engineering firms on projects related to the turf field; and that Vieiro allegedly had between 65 and 88 work day absences in 2017 and later modified records related to those absence.

“An Open Public Records Act request was filed regarding the administrator’s absences and the Holmdel technology department printed out a list of absences. The following year, the same printout did not show her alleged absences. Allegations that the payroll and time records were altered to be changed or modified at the administrator’s direction were leveled against (Vieiro),” Kean said.

In addition, Kean said it was alleged that Vieiro improperly issued checks with township funds which included the disbursement of checks to individuals with conflicts of interest.

“Due to the fact that the scope of this firm’s investigation is currently limited to Larrison’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“whistleblower act”) claims against the township, we find it necessary to report the above concerns and allegations to (the committee) so you can determine how to proceed with the investigation of these additional claims,” Kean said.

Following Kean’s remarks, Hinds offered a motion to reinstate Callery to her position.

“It sounds like none of (the allegations) have to do with Denise, I don’t understand that,” Hinds said.

Critelli and Hinds said that “paying (Callery) to sit home is ridiculous.”

On a roll call vote, Hinds, Nikolis, Pascucci, Critelli and Buontempo voted to rescind Callery’s suspension and allow the human resources manager to resume work the following day, which was June 12.

Hinds then made a motion to rescind Vieiro’s suspension and allow her to resume work on June 12.

“I’m well aware of all the things that were said, but in fairness to the township, the committee, (to Vieiro) and her reputation, she has to be here to take on these allegations,” he said.

Critelli and Hinds voted “yes” on the motion.

Nikolis and Pascucci said Viero should not be allowed to return to work and Pascucci said Vieiro should resign.

Buontempo said an investigation into the new allegations should be conduced by Kean.

Nikolis, Pascucci and Buontempo voted “no” on the motion to rescind Viero’s suspension. With the 3-2 vote against the motion, Viero remains suspended from her position.

“There is nothing here that we can’t resolve while (Vieiro) is working,” Hinds said.

Reading from a written statement, Nikolis said, “For too long, in my opinion, our administrator has misled, misinformed, manipulated, misguided and flat out lied.”

Nikolis continued to read a list of alleged wrongdoings he said Vieiro had committed since Aug. 19, 2016.

The committee members then engaged in debate.

“I take no pleasure in doing this in public … Donna runs the town effectively … However, I think the town is run by fear,” Pascucci said. “… I will not vote to bring her back.”

Critelli asked his fellow committee members if the investigation must conclude at a certain time and asked what the cap on legal fees may be.

Buontempo said there is money in the litigation fund the governing body could use to pay legal expenses associated with the extended investigation.

Critelli said some of the money in the litigation fund is needed to fight a lawsuit that has been filed by New Jersey Natural Gas against the municipality.

In a vote on a motion to authorize Kean to investigate the allegations that have been made against Viero, Hinds and Critelli voted “no.” Buontempo, Nikolis and Pascucci voted “yes.” The motion carried in a 3-2 vote.

“I can’t think of a bigger waste of money,” Hinds said. “Well, I can. The first $17,500 (for Kean’s initial investigation). This is a disgrace for Holmdel. (Some committee members) should be ashamed of themselves.”

“And you shouldn’t?” Pascucci said.

Hinds responded with “whatever.”

Holmdel Police Chief John Mioduszewski will continue to serve as the acting township administrator in Viero’s absence, Collins said.