Nearly two months before Montclair’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, filed a lawsuit accusing Township Manager Timothy Stafford of harassment, the unfolding drama had a watershed moment in August — when an internal investigation conducted by the town concluded that Stafford had created a “hostile work environment” for the CFO.

Amid calls by elected officials for Stafford’s ouster, the findings inject new intrigue and a fuller timeline into a saga that has stirred discord and condemnation in and out of township government. The investigation, conducted by Montclair’s Affirmative Action officer, Bruce Morgan, culminated with a nine-page report that overlaps with a depiction in the lawsuit filed on Oct. 17 of a town manager fostering fear and unease for Rao and other municipal employees.

The report was obtained by Montclair Local from a confidential source. 

It provides fresh details, raising questions about whether officials who were aware of Rao’s distress — including Deputy Town Manager Brian Scantlebury and Acting Township Attorney Paul Burr — had either tried to address it with the town manager directly or alerted other Montclair leaders.

Since Rao’s gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit accused Stafford of targeting her and other women in top municipal positions, it is expected that the Township Council will vote to take action regarding Stafford at its meeting Tuesday, Oct. 25. Several council members have also called for some sort of rebuke of the town manager.

In a statement last week, Mayor Sean Spiller said that he will urge the council to place Stafford on administrative leave and that the town was engaging “specialized employment practice counsel” to investigate the accusations in Rao’s lawsuit. The mayor said he learned of the allegations in the past week through news reports on the lawsuit.

Questioned by the Affirmative Action officer, Bruce Morgan, high-level officials, including Burr, said they had been aware of and had witnessed at least one burst of temper from Stafford aimed at the CFO. In a written complaint included in the report, Rao said that after years of fraught exchanges and disagreements with Stafford dating to 2018, his mistreatment of her had escalated over the last two years. She wrote that she finally felt compelled to bring harassment charges following a particularly charged meeting with Stafford and others on April 11 of this year. Three weeks later, on May 3, Morgan’s investigation began.

In the report, Morgan wrote that Rao had described Stafford’s behavior as “aggressive, threatening, intimidating and abusive,” and that she had been subjected to it “over an extended period of time.”

“Ms. Rao has also stated to me,” Morgan wrote, “that Mr. Stafford’s actions has become so pervasive that not only has it become difficult for her to carry out her duties as the CFO, that she is oftentimes ‘scared to come to work.’”

The report captures a complex dynamic, filled with seeming conflicts of interest, played out in the side-by-side offices and drab, narrow hallways of the Municipal Building on Claremont Avenue. Stafford and Spiller have offices in the same suite on the second floor, though Spiller, the president of the New Jersey Education Association, does not always work in the building. Rao’s office is a floor above.

Employees reporting directly to Stafford — including Rao — were faced with the daunting prospect of confronting their boss over allegations of his own misconduct. Under Montclair’s form of government, the township manager’s power far outstrips that of any township employee or elected official, including the mayor, with one caveat: the Township Council can vote to remove him.

Stafford, an attorney, became acting town manager in 2014. The “acting” part of his title was removed two years ago when the council voted to approve him as permanent town manager.

Morgan’s task of carrying out his investigation was complicated in that he reports directly to Stafford. In an extended email exchange with Montclair Local, Morgan said that his normal process of submitting his findings to the township manager and human resources director was muddled by the anomalies attached to the CFO’s case. Stafford was not only the subject of  the investigation, but having allowed the position of human resources director to go unfilled for several months, Stafford has been serving in that role as well. So Morgan came up with a different path.

“As there is no formal procedure in place for when a complaint is lodged against the Township Manager,” Morgan wrote in an email, “I forwarded the complaint to the Law department so that they could make the decision as to what would be the best practice.”

In one sense, though, Morgan’s decision on how to proceed on an official level might have made little difference. In a typical case it is pro forma, Morgan said, for him to provide anyone accused with a copy of his findings. An email seeking comment from Burr received no response. 

In an email,  Scantlebury declined to comment “on issues relating to current litigation.”

While Stafford did not reply to an email request for an interview and has made no public comments since news of the lawsuit broke, he can be heard through Q and A excerpts of an interview Morgan conducted with him as part of the investigation.

When Morgan told Stafford that the CFO had accused him of creating a hostile work environment and asked for his response to the allegations, the township manager responded, “I deny them all.”

Asked if there were any aspects of Rao’s allegations that he agreed with, Stafford said, “I disagree that I created a hostile work environment.”

With the report making no recommendations for reprimand, Stafford apparently suffered no immediate consequences over Morgan's validation of Rao’s grievances. If anything, it appears that Rao was the one treated punitively in the weeks after Morgan submitted his findings on Aug. 29, suggesting that his findings may have contributed to escalating tensions in the administrative offices.

Last month, as Rao was acting to prevent some Township Council members from improperly receiving health insurance benefits from the town, her lawsuit said, the council was weighing whether to approve a new fire services contract with Glen Ridge. Her analysis presented calculations suggesting that the bid made by Montclair to secure the deal was far too low. 

She was soon barred from attending meetings of the influential Finance Committee as has been the norm since her appointment as Montclair’s CFO in 2015. Word of her exclusion was delivered to her by Scantlebury on Sept. 26, who told her that committee members “found her difficult to work with,” her lawsuit says.

An email thread the following day, Sept. 27, that was shared with Montclair Local begins with Rao memorializing Scantlebury’s admonishment. The thread, which was sent to Stafford, Burr and the entire town council, included denials from the Finance Committee’s three members, Spiller, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and 4th Ward Councilor David Cummings, who all commended her work. Stafford, who also attends the committee’s meetings, did not respond to Rao’s email. Neither did Scantlebury. 

While the antagonism toward her may have peaked in recent weeks, it has a long prologue stretching back years. 

The complaint Rao gave to Morgan, the affirmative action officer, cites several contentious episodes involving her and Stafford. At the center are three meetings where, she alleges, Stafford became especially volatile. At one meeting in the spring or summer of 2020, Rao says she drew the town manager’s vitriol when she questioned the awarding of a retroactive pay raise to a former town employee.

“Meeting started as a simple conversation with a healthy argument but very soon TS became very agitated and started thumping the stack of papers in front of him on the table,” she wrote in her complaint, referring to Stafford. “I felt very uncomfortable and even fearful (he may throw those stacks of paper at my face kind of fear).”

Her complaint says that a similar incident was ignited at the year’s final meeting of department heads in 2020 when Rao questioned why Stafford had changed the policy for employees wanting to carry unused vacation days into the following year. The change, Rao wrote, benefited some employees, including Stafford and former Township Attorney Ira Karasick, while hurting others, including her entire department.

“He became agitated and loud when asked for the analysis he prepared to arrive at that conclusion,” she wrote. “Once again, I felt this behavior as bullying and disrespectful towards me.”

The meeting last April 11 that spurred Rao to file a harassment complaint with the town’s Affirmative Action office, was held to address Rao’s concerns over questionable and possibly illegal manipulation of attendance records in the fire department. An issue that dated to 2018 was not brought to her attention until a few weeks before the April meeting. Burr and former Montclair Comptroller Chris Macaluso were also at this meeting, the report says.

In Rao’s account, Stafford said that he had been assured by supervisors that the practice had stopped, so he presumed it had. Rao wrote that after asking him if he had done an internal investigation or tried to recoup money from employees who received extra pay fraudulently, “Tim lost his composure and started screaming.”

After expressing her concern to the town manager that employees could receive pensions for time they didn’t work, Rao wrote that Stafford’s irritation only seemed to heighten. “Tim continued screaming and made derogatory comments about how this whole meeting is disgusting and how I am deposing him.”

In Burr’s portrayal of the meeting to Morgan, he said that Stafford appeared to adopt a “defensive posture.” Asked by Morgan if Stafford’s demeanor appeared threatening at the meeting, Burr said, “No, but he did raise his voice.”

The town manager’s anger rose again when Macaluso raised a question about the upcoming Juneteenth holiday, Burr told Morgan. “Stafford raised his voice and slammed on the table,” Morgan wrote in capturing Burr’s account.

“Burr went on to say that Ms. Rao and Mr. Macaluso seemed to be visibly rattled,” Morgan wrote. “Mr. Burr also stated that he thinks Mr. Stafford may have felt that he was being attacked, so he became irate, agitated and unprofessional.”

Stafford, in giving his take on the April 11 meeting to Morgan, described himself as  “uncomfortable and sarcastic” but not “hostile or off-putting,” Morgan wrote.

Macaluso, the former comptroller, told Morgan that he was also feeling apprehensive about having interactions with Stafford and that “he feels the lack of ability to communicate with Mr. Stafford has resulted in an ‘erosion of the township and its operation.’” Macaluso left his job in August and is now the CFO in Scotch Plains.

A voicemail message left for Macaluso received no reply.

“There appears to be a clear and convincing pattern of aggressive behavior,” Morgan wrote in his findings, “that, while personally affects the CFO, can have a cascading effect on the operation of the township overall.

“I believe that the evidence provided shows that Mr Stafford's actions toward Ms. Rao has substantially affected the work environment of a reasonable person,” Morgan concluded. “Accordingly, I find that a hostile work environment was created by Mr. Stafford toward Ms. Rao.”

Morgan’s final question to Stafford cited in the report was a seeming appeal to Stafford to find harmony in a work relationship that would continue to bring the town manager and the CFO together again and again moving forward.

“How would you suggest resolving this problem and how would you involve yourself in the solution?” Morgan asked.

“I do not think there is a problem at all,” the town manager replied.