Second Montclair investigation into Stafford bypassed input from affirmative action officer
More than six months after an internal investigation concluded that Montclair Township Manager Timothy Stafford created a “hostile work environment” for the town’s chief financial officer, those findings have all but fallen into obscurity.
The work, conducted by the town’s affirmative action officer, Bruce Morgan, included interviews with the CFO, Padmaja Rao, and Stafford. Others he interviewed, including acting Township Attorney Paul Burr, told him they had witnessed the township manager unleash verbal tirades at the CFO – episodes so charged, Morgan wrote, they often left Rao “scared to come to work.”
But Morgan, in an email exchange over the last few days with Montclair Local, said that an outside investigator commissioned by the Township Council to conduct a second inquiry did not contact him. In terse replies to yes-or-no questions, he said that he was not asked to share his knowledge of the case nor given the chance to propose additional lines of inquiry.
Neither, he said, did the outside investigator seek his broader perspective and knowledge of the workings of Montclair’s municipal government. As head of the affirmative action office, he plays a role in monitoring workplace culture, helping implement equal employment opportunity policies and procedures and providing a channel for employees to bring discrimination complaints.
“The investigator did not contact me,” Morgan wrote in response to a question.
“Essentially, have you participated in the outside investigation in any way?” he was asked.
His reply: “No.”
Morgan’s comments raise questions about the parameters of the external investigator’s work and come at a critical juncture in the case. The Township Council is expected to soon take further and perhaps definitive action on a township manager it first placed on paid administrative leave and then suspended with pay over the allegations contained in a discrimination lawsuit filed by the CFO last October against Stafford and the township. Stafford’s status is on the agenda for executive session at the council’s next meeting on Tuesday, March 14.
Last month, at the end of a marathon meeting that ended after midnight, the council voted under New Jersey’s Faulkner Act to give Stafford notice that he is subject to removal in 30 days. That period has elapsed. The law also gives Stafford the right to request a public hearing, but it is not certain if Stafford has made such a request or if he is negotiating a settlement or severance with the township.
“The Council of the Township of Montclair has determined it is in the best interest of the township to go in a different management direction,” the resolution says.
A separate resolution approved by the council includes a clause indicating that the outside investigation – conducted by Kathleen Connelly, a partner at the Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper law firm – came to a conclusion opposite from Morgan’s.
“Whereas, on February 7,” the clause says, “the Township Council was informed of the findings and conclusion of the independent employment practices investigation, specifically: the investigator did not find sufficient evidence to sustain a claim that Mr. Stafford’s conduct created an abusive or hostile work culture for female employees in the township.”
Before taking their vote, council members had apparently been shown a summary of Connelly’s report but not the entire document.
Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis said that he could not discuss the substance of executive sessions, but that Connelly’s bypassing of Morgan stoked longstanding reservations he held about the thoroughness of the outside investigation. He was particularly concerned, he said, that the township had apparently not informed employees that an investigation was underway or given them an opportunity to share their experiences, including perhaps through an anonymous phone or email hotline.
“The biggest concern I have about this is that it was never designed to be comprehensive, and it wasn't comprehensive,” Yacobellis said.
He also said that council members have been advised by the township’s legal department to avoid reading Morgan’s report, which was obtained last October by Montclair Local from a confidential source.
“We were advised it wouldn't be in our best interest to review it or to be a party to it,” Yacobellis said. “I don't know why. I was advised by counsel that it wasn't a good idea.”
Informed about Morgan’s comments, Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo said in an email that he had been shown only the summary of Connelly’s report and had “just requested” her complete findings, as well as a copy of Morgan’s report.
“I am very concerned about the process used to conduct this investigation,” Russo said, “and the conclusion it came to leaves me with more questions, based on my own observations and experience.”
Morgan’s exclusion from the outside investigator’s work also draws into question the role of Burr, the acting township attorney, just as the council is slated to decide at its Tuesday night meeting whether to extend Burr’s contract, perhaps through the end of the year.
In his report, Morgan included descriptions Burr provided him of meetings Burr had attended with Stafford and Rao.
While Burr briefly recused himself from the Oct. 25 meeting where Stafford was placed on administrative leave, he has since generally remained in his customary seat on the dais at Township Council meetings when Stafford’s status was discussed. Often he has advised council members not to discuss an employee relations or litigation matter in open session.
According to Yacobellis, Burr has attended council executive sessions devoted to deliberations on Stafford’s future, including the March 14 meeting where the resolutions were drawn up.
Burr, Yacobellis said, “seems to have only selectively recused himself, making the sanctity of the recusal questionable.”
Also attending at least a portion of the Feb, 7 executive session, Yacobellis said, was Derrick Freijomil, who is representing the township against Rao’s lawsuit and a second discrimination suit brought by a former deputy township clerk, Juliet Lee. It is unclear why Freijomil was at the executive session.
At a meeting last April 11 that was depicted in a statement Rao gave to Morgan and in her lawsuit, Stafford screamed at her over questions she had posed regarding possible misconduct in the Fire Department. “Rao was shaken by the ferocity of Stafford’s verbal abuse toward her,” her lawsuit says.
Burr told Morgan, according to the affirmative action officer’s report, that Stafford’s conduct at the meeting, which also included former Comptroller Chris Macaluso, was “very unprofessional.”
“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.”
When Morgan later met with Stafford for his inquiry, Burr sat in on the interview, raising questions for Morgan as to why he was there.
“In my interview with Mr. Stafford,” Morgan wrote in his report, “I asked him a series of questions in regard to a specific incident and the overall allegation. Mr. Paul Burr, the township attorney, was present during my meeting with Mr. Stafford despite the fact Mr. Burr witnessed the actions in the April 11, 2022, meeting.”
It is unclear, too, what role, if any, Burr may have played in developing a list of people for Connelly, the outside investigator, to interview.
Yacobellis said he had been troubled about Connelly’s independence since her firm was hired in November.
“My concern from the very beginning is that this was not set up in a way where it was intended to be objective,” he said. “I do believe the investigator did her work properly and with integrity, but within the boundaries, possibly inappropriate boundaries, defined by some of the players, including the town attorney.”
Reflecting on what he described as an obligation to protect employees, Yacobellis said, “We are leaders of people, and we have people we appoint to run our government, and we have a responsibility to make sure that they feel safe and heard and know their rights and are being looked after.”
Yacobellis, an outspoken advocate for removing Stafford, has had to recuse himself at times from council discussions over concerns that he had discussed Rao’s allegations with reporters. On the advice of town attorneys he did not participate in the Oct. 25 vote to put Stafford on administrative leave.
Burr did not respond to several questions emailed to him, including why he had not recused himself from council deliberations on the case.
The investigator, Connelly, did not respond to a voice message seeking comment. Freijomil, the attorney hired by the township, did not respond to a voice message and neither did Phillip George, an attorney for Stafford.
Among other council members, Mayor Sean Spiller, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings did not respond to emailed requests. Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager and Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams declined to comment.
Nancy Erika Smith, an attorney for Rao, said in a text that Morgan’s omission from Connelly’s inquiry gives her pause.
“In my experience, employers’ “investigations” of their own conduct by “independent” law firms (chosen and paid by the employer) or done internally are biased and rarely find for the employee,” Smith wrote. “That’s why Mr. Morgan stands out as a brave and conscientious employee of Montclair. His being excluded from the second investigation is certainly not a good sign that it’s not just a whitewash.”
In his email exchange with Montclair Local, Morgan said that Connelly had not asked him to provide her with his report.
Asked if the investigator had, to his knowledge, used the report itself as part of the investigation, Morgan replied, “My assumption is that the investigator wanted to come to her own conclusions, based solely on interviews with various people in the organization.”
In January Montclair Local reported on an email Morgan sent to Rao in September that indicated that the town had rejected his findings. His note to Rao, obtained by Montclair Local from a confidential source, quoted from an email he said he had received from Gina DeVito, the assistant township attorney.
DeVito informed him, he wrote, that Rao’s allegations “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.