The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office has issued a subpoena to Montclair Township, seeking a sweeping array of pay records, time sheets and attendance logs for all the Township Council members.

The subpoena does not state a reason for demanding the records. But it comes two months after the township’s chief financial officer brought a lawsuit that included her concerns that elected township officials were receiving state health insurance benefits unlawfully. 

The subpoena, served on Friday, Dec. 9, at the Municipal Building on Claremont Avenue, follows the whistleblowing lawsuit filed in October by the chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, against both the township and its manager, Timothy Stafford. The suit describes persistent efforts by Rao to bring council members into compliance with a 2010 New Jersey law that says that only employees with a “fixed” workweek of 35 hours or more are entitled to the state-sponsored benefits.

The subpoena requires the township to present the records before a state grand jury on Jan. 13 or deliver the documents in a “secured carton” by that date. It is requesting the complete personnel files for all seven members of the council – Mayor Sean Spiller, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis, Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager, Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams and Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings.

Among other documents, Attorney General Matthew Platkin’s office is requesting “any and all paystubs, paychecks and other documents concerning salaries, wages, stipends, bonuses, incentives or other payments” made to the council members, dating to 2011. Only Russo was serving on the council at that time, while Spiller and Schlager joined the council the following year. Schlager had served earlier terms in office as well.

Also included in the subpoena is a request for “any and all timesheets, timecards, duty rosters, attendance records and any other documents concerning hours logged or worked” by the members.

Rao’s lawsuit describes several confrontations between her and the township manager when she raised questions about a number of practices, only to be rebuffed and often screamed at by Stafford. But no disagreement outlined in her suit receives more focus than the dispute over the council members’ health insurance, which, she says, culminated in Stafford countermanding her directive to bring the benefits to a halt.

Her inquiries, her suit says, led to “retaliatory actions” by Stafford, who is on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into Rao’s accusations. The CFO’s lawsuit also claims gender discrimination and accuses Stafford of creating a “hostile work environment.”

Stafford, as a full-time employee, is entitled to insurance benefits. Council members receive a $10,000 stipend. 

Rao says in her suit that she began raising concerns after Montclair switched municipal employees from private insurance coverage to the New Jersey State Health Benefits Program in 2017.

Periodic attempts by her, as well by an outside auditor, to have council members certify in writing that they were working the requisite 35 hours a week were often met with resistance, her suit says. Warnings, as recently as September, that four council members were wrongfully receiving insurance benefits and that two were wrongfully receiving a $5,000 waiver payment to opt out of the insurance plan, went unheeded by both Stafford and the three members of the Finance Committee. The committee members — Spiller, Hurlock and Cummings — were all either receiving health insurance benefits or the waiver benefit, the lawsuit says.

“The Finance Committee members would not address the issue,” the lawsuit says, referring to a meeting last July. “Rao’s request to address the issue was met with silence and stony looks.”

Emails sent to Spiller and Hurlock on Tuesday, Dec. 13, were not returned. Hurlock told Baristanet in October that after learning he was not entitled to the state benefit, he stepped away from the plan as of Sept. 30.

Voice messages and texts sent to Cummings and Price Abrams were not returned, while Schlager, when reached by text, declined to comment.

Russo wrote in a text that council members had been advised by the town not to comment, though he has said during council meetings in recent months that he was not receiving health insurance on the state plan. 

In an interview Tuesday with Montclair Local and then in an emailed statement, Yacobellis said he had been misled by the town.

“Like most employees starting a job somewhere, when I was elected in 2020, Human Resources put a packet in front of me and asked me to select my benefits,” Yacobellis said. “I never thought to ask if I qualified for the benefits or not.”

He said that he and his colleagues were advised by outside counsel on Sept. 28 that they should not be receiving health care through the state plan. Because the township was his primary employer, he was faced with a difficult choice, he said, deciding ultimately to purchase insurance through the Affordable Care Act that will take effect on Jan. 1.

“I'm quite frustrated by this situation,” Yacobellis said. “I work very hard for the town and the health insurance helped, especially when one considers that we're only paid $10,000 a year. I think the situation has to change, overall. Public service should be affordable for anyone willing to serve, and it's not. I knew that when I got into this. But losing health care makes it even more challenging.”

In an email, acting Township Manager Brian Scantlebury declined to comment, and Paul Burr, the acting township attorney, did not respond to an email.

Responding to a request for comment, Daniel Prochilo, a spokesman for the attorney general, said the office "cannot confirm or deny the existence of any investigation into that matter."

The Montclair subpoena holds echoes of an investigation into similar practices in Wildwood that resulted in criminal charges of fraud being brought against three city officials, including the mayor. In that case, the officials were charged with theft and tampering with public records.

No such allegations have been made against the Montclair council members.