No Decision Made In Suspension Hearing For Cranford Employee
The disciplinary hearing for Deputy Treasurer Brian Lanza escalated into a debate over the credibility of Township Administrator Eric Mason.
What began as a disciplinary hearing for deputy treasurer Brian Lanza in council chambers Thursday night quickly transformed into a debate over the credibility if Iterim Township Administrator/Police Chief Eric Mason, who served as the only witness during the public hearing.
Lanza, a two-year employee of the township who has been suspended with pay since July 6, opted to have his disciplinary hearing conducted in open session during a special meeting of the Township Committee on Aug. 23. A group of more than 20 residents, friends and family members of Lanza showed up for the special meeting. The governing body, however, did not end up voting on the motion to suspend Lanza without pay, as recommended by Mason.
Lanza's suspension began following an alleged confrontation with fellow finance employee Cynthia Laughlin, who, according to Mason, may have felt threatened by Lanza. According to an incident report from Laughlin that was submitted as evidence, Lanza stood over her desk with his fists clenched, and later kicked a box and may have punched a file cabinet. Lanza said in his own report, however, he never actually punched the cabinet because he was afraid of hurting his hand. In addition, Laughlin and Lanza continued to work in the same office for several hours following the incident.
During questioning by Rachel Caruso, the attorney representing the township in the disciplinary hearing, Mason testified that after being notified of the confrontation, he walked into the finance office to find Laughlin "shaking, with tears in her eyes." He took her to the administration office where she allegedly explained that she was having a discussion with Lanza regarding payroll issues that led to an argument. Laughlin then told Mason she believed that Lanza was "out of control."
"Do you feel she feared for her personal safety," Caruso asked Mason.
"Yes, I did," said Mason, who sought Caruso's legal counsel immediately following the incident because he suspected that Lanza was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Lanza's union representative was also contacted, the administrator said.
According to Mason, Lanza refused to submit to a drug and alcohol test when asked. Subsequently, Mason made the decision to have Police Capt. Joseph Van Bergen transport Lanza to a medical facility in Scotch Plains, where Lanza again refused to submit to testing. Unlike many towns in the state, Cranford does not have a drug and alcohol policy for its employees that would have required Lanza to take a drug test if it was suspected that he was under the influence.
The interim township administrator's decision to have the police captain transport Lanza to Scotch Plains - in the front seat of an unmarked police vehicle - was criticized by Lanza's attorney, Wolodymyr P. Tyshchenko, of the lawfirm of Caruso Smith Edell Picini. The attorney maintained that Mason was not acting as the interim township administrator, but rather, as the police chef when he - under the advice of Caruso - decided to send the employee for a drug test.
"I was concerned about Mr. Lanza's condition," Mason said during the hearing. The township administrator added that Lanza was not taken to Scotch Plains in handcuffs, nor did the employee argue or object to being transported.
However, Lanza's attorney implied that Mason's order to transport Lanza to another town for a drug test was, in a sense, "kidnapping." The attorney maintains that the township administrator never told Lanza that he did not have to go for the drug test if it was against his wishes.
In addition to Mason's suspicion that Lanza was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, other reasons were given for his request to suspend the employee without pay. Following his initial paid suspension, Mason said he received a number of documents - which were also presented as evidence - that brought to light inaccuracies in the finance department under Lanza's management. Such evidence included a letter from Laughlin - received by Mason after the suspension - indicating deficiencies in premium payments to the Colonial Life Insurance Company. It was also allegedly determined that premiums to AFLAC insurance weren't paid. All of these premiums are paid through deductions from employees' paychecks.
According to officials, no docuemnts from AFLAC or ADP - the township's payroll company - were sent to the municipality to indicate any discrepancies. Tyshchenko questioned Mason about any other irregularities or discrepancies in the finance department, but the township administrator said that none were reported until after Lanza's suspension. Mason also testified that he did not question the accuracy of the documents that showed irregularities. The township has contracted with Government Strategy group to handle financial management services. The firm has been acting as the chief financial officer for Cranford and will also be handling some of Lanza's duties during his suspension.
During cross-examination, Mason's credibility was repeatedly called into question by Tyshchenko, who also questioned Mason's conduct following the alleged incident on July 6.
"The witness' credibility is an issue," said Tyshchenko, who was reprimanded several times by members of the Township Committee for his line of questioning. He was also asked on more than one occasion to "show some respect" for the commissioners on the dais. At one point during his questioning, Tyshchenko accused Mason of failing to be consistent with his answers.
"You don't know how to give a straight answer, do you," Tyshchenko asked Mason.
The attorney, further calling Mason's credibility into question, reminded the Township Committee of a 2009 lawsuit involving Tracey Wilde v. Township of Cranford in which the court did not find Chief Mason's testimony credible.
Tyshchenky, in his closing statement to the governing body, called it "wholly inappropriate" to suspend Lanza without pay, based on the testimony and evidence provided.
"As we sit here today with the evidence before you," the attorney told the Township Committee, "all we've seen is evidence of misconduct on the part of Mr. Mason."
Tyshchenko accused Mason of taking action "unilaterally" on two occasions without the consent of the Township Committee - the first time being his initial suspension of Lanza and the second being his alleged, unofficial appointment of Laughlin as Lanza's supervisor following the suspension. Official suspensions and changes in an employee's job title must be approved by the governing body in a resolution. Mason maintains that he has the authority to initiate a suspension for up to five days if he deems it necessary.
Caruso's closing statement indicated that the special meeting was not to determine if Mason was a credible witness, but to determine if Lanza should be suspended without pay.
"This is not a hearing on merits," Caruso said. "It's a hearing to determine if suspension is warranted based on misconduct on the part of Mr. Lanza."
Lanza, his union representative and his attorney decided that Lanza would not testify during the hearing. Township commissioners returned to closed session immediately following the hearing and did not take formal action at the end of the meeting.