In new allegations, Montclair’s CFO says mayor retaliated against her
The discrimination lawsuit against Montclair and Township Manager Timothy Stafford brought by the township’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, added a new layer this week with the CFO accusing Mayor Sean Spiller of retaliation.
Spiller sought to create a dossier on her performance, an amendment to the suit says, framing it as an act of retribution after she brought a harassment complaint against Stafford.
The amendment, relying heavily on public accusations Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis made against the mayor, says that Spiller “commenced a retaliatory investigation against Rao in an attempt to create a derogatory record of her job performance and conduct, which could be used to undermine Rao in her work and potentially terminate her employment.”
Last September, the CFO, a central figure in managing the township’s fiscal matters, says she was told that she was no longer permitted to attend Finance Committee meetings. Rao's amended lawsuit contends that the action was retaliation partly stemming from her decision to bring the harassment claim.
The amendment, filed on Tuesday, Jan. 24, is awaiting approval by Essex County Superior Court, but is already part of the public docket.
Rao’s lawsuit, first filed in October, describes a string of episodes in which Rao says that Stafford screamed at her with such “ferocity” that she became “fearful of facing or communicating with him.” After being subjected to a particularly fearsome tirade during a meeting with Stafford last April, Rao says in her suit, she brought a formal complaint to the township against her boss. Those allegations resulted in a finding by Montclair’s affirmative action officer, Bruce Morgan, that Stafford had created a “hostile work environment” for the CFO.
Montclair Local obtained Morgan’s report from a confidential source.
The original lawsuit against both Stafford and the township contends that Rao was also targeted as part of a “pattern of hostile conduct” Stafford inflicted upon her and other female municipal employees. In addition, the suit says that repeated inquiries she made into fiscal practices that she viewed as questionable were rebuffed, leading to reprisals and denying her rights as a whistleblower.
A second lawsuit, brought by Juliet Lee, a former deputy clerk, also accuses Stafford of creating “a hostile work environment.” And sworn statements provided by two women who are former employees of the township echo the same sort of rancorous scenes first laid out by Rao. The statements were obtained by Montclair Local from a confidential source.
Uncertainty now hangs over township government and Stafford’s future. Reacting to the CFO’s lawsuit, the Township Council voted to place Stafford on paid administrative leave in October. The next month the council authorized a second investigation in addition to the affirmative action officer’s inquiry and findings. An outside law firm, Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper, was hired for the second inquiry.
During a tempestuous council meeting on Oct. 25 – the same night that Stafford was put on leave – Yacobellis alluded to a conversation he said that Spiller had initiated with him and other council members immediately after a Sept. 28 council meeting and a day after Rao had been ousted from the Finance Committee meetings.
In those conversations Spiller revealed that he had begun to compile information on Rao’s job performance, the suit says, citing Yacobellis’ remarks. With the mayor sitting immediately to his left at the council’s dais, Yacobellis said he had not known about the harassment complaint Rao had brought to the township when he says he spoke with the mayor following the Sept. 28 meeting.
“While having those kinds of discussions are completely appropriate,” the suit reads, quoting Yacobellis, “I found the timing of you discussing those concerns about her performance inappropriate, especially not knowing that there had been this investigation and subsequent conclusion [of a hostile work environment] which I find it really hard to believe that you didn't know about[.]”
The amended lawsuit says, “Councilor Yacobellis’ statements revealed that Mayor Spiller commenced his own investigation seeking to gather information ‘on multiple occasions’ from Montclair councilors regarding Rao that Mayor Spiller could use to undermine Rao in her position as CFO, and potentially use as grounds to seek her termination.”
In an interview on Oct. 15, Spiller strongly denied that he had held any conversations with Yacobellis or any other council members following the Sept. 28 council session. He said that he had instructed Stafford to review and update files for employees across municipal government.
Spiller, the lawsuit now says, also extended his retaliation against Rao with comments he made at a Dec. 20 meeting revolving around a possible switch in the township’s property, casualty and liability insurance carrier. The mayor made a false assertion, the suit says, that the recommendation to switch had come from the CFO and that her lawsuit against the township created a “conflict of interest” for her.
The mayor’s comments, the amended suit says, were “intended to harm Rao’s reputation, question her integrity and undermine public confidence in her work.”
Spiller responded to emailed questions about Rao's new allegations with a statement.
"I am, and have been, fully supportive of ensuring any issue or complaint is heard and that we take appropriate steps to address – such as bringing in a team of experts to address culture and climate," the mayor wrote. "Regarding being mentioned, I must also still do my job in ensuring the township is current on its bills and asking appropriate questions, including noting that I do not think anyone involved in litigation against the township should be part of meetings pertaining to the litigation."
Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings, a member of the Finance Committee along with Spiller and Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, messaged Montclair Local to reject any notion that Spiller had spoken with him or Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo in the moments after the Sept. 28 meeting. The mayor, Cummings wrote, spoke that night with the other council members, including Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager and Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams.
“The mayor never approached me or Councilor Russo, who had left after executive session," Cummings wrote. "Sean talked to Councilor Yacobellis and Councilor Abrams, then spoke to Hurlock and Councilor Schlager. I don’t like the inference that he spoke to all councilors."
Cummings added, "The entire time I have worked with Maja, she has been professional and always put the taxpayers interest first," referring to the CFO by the name she often goes by.
The ongoing discord between the CFO and the township has produced odd moments of intrigue. Rao has been a presence at recent council meetings, as she has guided presentations by department heads during the budget-making process. On Jan. 24, as acting Township Attorney Paul Burr explained the Law Department’s budget request, Rao stood to his side, as Schlager questioned them about the expense attached to lawsuits that had been brought against the township.
The nearly four-month investigation by Morgan, the affirmative action officer, culminated with an Aug. 29 report last year that sided with Rao. But rather than leading to any immediate consequences for Stafford, according to her lawsuit, it led to further repercussions for Rao, including her being barred from the Finance Committee meetings.
The findings of Morgan’s investigation were never released to the public by the township or acknowledged.
Along with the committee members – Spiller, Hurlock and Cummings – Stafford was a constant at the committee’s meetings, as was Rao.
Emails shared with Montclair Local by a confidential source capture exchanges over two days in late September – a month after Morgan produced his findings – that ended with Rao’s removal from the Finance Committee.
On the evening of Sept. 27, Rao sent a note to Deputy Township Manager Brian Scantlebury, who is now the acting township manager, to memorialize a conversation she said she had had with him earlier that day. The note was copied to Stafford, Scantlebury and all members of the Township Council and the township’s Law Department.
The note says:
“You came to my office today around 4 p.m. to advise me that Mr. Stafford instructed you to direct me not to attend Finance Committee meetings because members find me ‘difficult to work with.’ Needless to say, after serving on the Committee for over 6 years with no prior feedback, I disagree with this assessment and find it capricious and demeaning.
“That said, this email is confirmation that I will no longer attend Finance Committee meetings.”
By about 12:30 p.m. the following day, Rao had received a flurry of emails from Stafford and the Finance Committee members, all disputing the notion that they had found her difficult to work with.
“Ms. Rao – I have not found you to be difficult to work with during our meetings,” Cummings wrote to her. “I have found your input and work with the group to be useful.”
Hurlock said in his email, “So the record is crystal clear, I never made any such statement that you are ‘difficult to work with.’”
Likewise, in his email Spiller said that he never expressed that sentiment and had not discussed the matter with Scantlebury. But in his email, he alluded to a request he had made of Stafford to review who attends meetings across the board.
“That said, as Mr. Stafford is the Township Manager, the guidance issued was clearly and simply stated regarding who the committee needs at our meetings to be updated and informed.”
In her lawsuit, Rao says that Stafford repeatedly rejected her “attempts to bring Montclair into compliance with applicable state laws and fulfill her responsibilities as CFO,” leading, she says, to his desire to oust her from the Finance Committee meetings.
A few hours after that spate of emails, shortly after 3 p.m., Morgan stepped into the picture, sending an email to Rao that was copied to Scantlebury and Gina DeVito, the assistant township attorney. The email suggested that his findings were not simply overlooked by the township but rejected.
His note said that he had just received an email from DeVito, informing him that his findings “did not rise to the level of ‘hostile work environment’ as defined by law.” He wrote that DeVito had not provided anything to support the assertion.
“Outside of the aforementioned quote, no documentation was presented to me substantiating the Law Department’s findings,” Morgan wrote to Rao. ”As this is the first time any of my findings have been reviewed by the Law Department and forwarded to the appropriate parties, I thought it best that I inform you of this so that you take whatever steps you deem necessary at this point.”