After settlement, former county employee alleges layoff was payback

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To the editor:

On Tuesday, Feb. 25, the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders passed Resolution 165-14, which effectively ended a federal litigation captioned Arthur Montana v. the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Diane Lanzetta and Barbara Bakely-Marino.

I am writing this to inform the voters of Cape May County that there are those who control Cape May County government who will punish public servants who expose wrongdoing in county government. The operatives are not focused primarily on serving your interest or the interests of your family. Rather, these operatives function primarily to serve the interests of a smug group of county power-brokers who think that the voters can continue to be fooled, as they have been for many years.

The litigation was filed in February 2009 with the United States District Court of New Jersey. The action was based upon the First Amendment to Constitution of the United States, which protects a citizen’s right to free speech. It also included a cause of action under New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act, which protects persons, like me, who expose employer wrongdoing.

The litigation was a consequence of retribution I encountered by the Board of Freeholders and the two named individuals, Diane Lanzetta and Barbara Bakley-Marino. The retribution came after I exposed the improper and unethical conduct of then director of Cape May County Youth Service, Lanzetta, and a Family Court judge, Kyran Connor.

For 20 years, ending in December of 2011, I served hundreds of families with children in Cape May County as a New Jersey certified juvenile-family crisis counselor. I was honored to have had the opportunity to work so closely with children and families in crisis. The term juvenile-family crisis is set forth in New Jersey law as any condition or behavior of a juvenile that represents a risk to his or her physical safety and well-being. It is a term that is also defined by a juvenile’s disregard for parental authority, a parent’s misuse of parental authority, or a juvenile’s repeated unauthorized flight from home or absence from school.

My main goal, which was shared by the other counselors in the office, was to resolve family crises through counseling. When this was unsuccessful and the family crisis continued, juvenile-family crisis counselors would petition the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Division in accordance with state law regarding such matters. Counselors such as I would then present the facts of the matter to the family court judge at a hearing. As required by law, counselors would also make recommendations to the court regarding services or actions intended to bring about the protection of the juvenile and the resolution of the juvenile-family crisis. At the end of the hearing, the court would then issue an order in the presence of the juvenile and his or her parents.

In February of 2007, I became aware that the then-director of youth services, Diane Lanzetta, was having back-door communications with her friend (as she admitted in her deposition), Family Court Judge Kyran Connor. Lanzetta was not a certified juvenile-family crisis counselor. Rather, Lanzetta was a political appointee to the director post. Before his judicial appointment, Judge Connor was the Cape May County counsel, a position now held by Bakley-Marino.

Lanzetta’s back-door communications with Judge Connor led to changes in duly filed court orders in family crisis cases without any hearing or proper notice to affected family members. This practice led to much confusion and consternation for the affected parents and children involved in the court proceedings. These were families already under a great deal of stress. The practice added to the stress of these families. It was wrong, unethical and totally improper.

I complained about this practice. What followed for me was five years of tag-team retribution, which in my opinion culminated with the county’s decision to lay me off (allegedly as a result of an economic crisis) along with other counselors in my office in December, 2011. Deposition testimony shows that other workers in my office believed that my lawsuit led the county to put our program on the chopping block.

The retribution did not end with my layoff. Rather it continued through the end of 2012 with a cover-up of discoverable facts.

Bakley-Marino and her lawyers also failed to disclose dozens of emails between Lanzetta and Judge Connor until years after they were required to do so. The emails show a lack of transparency in the workings of a New Jersey state court. In September, 2013, the United States District Court of New Jersey imposed a sanction on the defendants in the litigation for failing to disclose the documents long before.

In 2007, the year that I began to expose the wrongdoing of Lanzetta, Cape May County had a staff of employees serving the families of the county, To support the various programs, employees were paid in total salaries and wages $879,601 (as per the county’s 2007 budget document). By 2013, the same budget included only $5,000 in salaries and wages, No other county department was decimated like Youth Service. Rather, budget documents from 2007 to 2013 show that the total wages and salaries paid by the county to all county workers actually increased during this time, as did county revenues. The timing and singularity of the county’s decision to gut youth services strongly suggests that the Board of Freeholders employed a scorched earth policy to get rid of a whistleblower. 

It should be noted that, as part of the lawsuit settlement, neither the county nor Lanzetta and Bakley-Marino admitted to any liability. Yet they paid me $775,000 to go away. It is likely that the county and its insurer paid double that in lawyer fees to make me go away.

While Cape May County and the individual defendants will deny that they are liable for what they did to me and their rape of Cape May County Youth Services, there are 775,000 reasons to show that they are. There is a culture of corruption here in Cape May County government that supports and/or orchestrates a lack of transparency, political retribution for truth-tellers and a policy that prioritizes serving the interests of county power brokers, not the citizens. Cape May County voters are now so advised. Now that some of the operatives have been publically exposed, county workers should come forward and shine the light on government wrongdoing wherever it exists.

Arthur Montana
Ocean City

Editor’s note: U.S. Judge Joel Schneider in September ordered the county to cover costs Arthur Montana incurred as a result of delays in releasing the content of emails between Diane Lanzetta and Judge Kyran Connor, in which the court stated that the documents should have been produced substantially earlier. However, according to a copy of the ruling released by Montana, the court did not find that the county acted willfully or in bad faith in failing to release the documents immediately, and found that the county satisfied its requirements to produce the documents. See a related news story for more on the matter.

Related County denies wrongdoing, but OKs payment 

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