Monmouth County government spent thousands in legal fees on behalf of the Sheriff’s Department in a failed effort to fire a jail guard over an incident involving a sandwich.
The guard eventually resigned but received back wages for the time missed from work during the legal fight over the sandwich, and a portion of the guard’s own legal expenses also were paid by the county. The total county tab was more than $60,000.
The grounds for dismissal were linked to a late evening incident at a convenience store in Belmar. The guard, who was off duty, ordered a sandwich and ate a pack of cupcakes, but found he didn’t have money to pay. He left a form of identification at the store and returned the next day with payment. Police were not called, and no police report was filed.
However, the Sheriff’s Department learned of the incident and began procedures to fire the guard, who had a previous conviction for drunken driving.
An administrative law judge who heard the case questioned the need for the extensive litigation.
“The only reason this matter found its way into the administrative disciplinary process is the county’s vigorous effort to put it there,” Judge Joseph Lavery wrote in his decision. The judge also noted the county’s “aggressive effort to enhance the facts surrounding so minor a happening.”
The elected county freeholders have yet to publicly discuss this case at their twice-monthly meetings, and it’s unclear how many similar cases the county pursued during 2007.
The county’s legal fees totaled $2.8 million in 2007, about 30 percent over budget.
James Keegan, the guard, resigned Feb. 3, according to Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Cynthia Scott. The department initially fired Keegan on Feb. 17, 2007, but he was reinstated by the state Merit System Board on Judge Lavery’s recommendation in January 2008.
Keegan, who could not be reached for comment, had faced earlier discipline from the Sheriff’s Department, being accused in September 2006 of prohibited behavior outside the job resulting from charges in Belmar of driving a motor vehicle while intoxicated and refusing a Breathalyzer test. Keegan agreed to a 120-day job suspension and inpatient alcohol treatment at his expense.
Keegan was charged with DWI again this year in Wall, where a municipal court hearing in that case has been scheduled for Tuesday. It was this brush with the law that prompted Keegan to resign from his job as part of an agreement with the county, according to county officials.
But the county, which paid $17,000 to its own lawyers, agreed to pay $40,000 to Keegan in back pay for time missed from work during the administrative hearing process and more than $5,000 to Keegan’s own lawyer, according to records.
Robert J. Hrebek, Wall, a former assistant Monmouth County counsel, said the case is an example of the need for tighter controls over the county’s legal spending.
“This case cost the county unnecessary legal fees, since it never should have been brought in the first place. There is just no way that an administrative law judge is likely to take a law enforcement officer’s job over such an extremely minor incident, despite a past disciplinary record, and someone should have told that to the sheriff,” Hrebek said.
The lead county attorney for the case was Matthew J. Giacobbe of the Scarinci and Hollenbeck law firm. Another member of the firm, Parthenophy A. Bardis, argued the case in the administrative law court.
The same firm is now the employer of former Monmouth County Sheriff Joseph W. Oxley, who was in office when the department tried to fire the guard.
County Administrator Robert Czech said it was jail Warden William Fraser, rather than Oxley, who pushed for Keegan’s removal.
“I disagree with Judge Lavery’s decision on this matter, because there was a prior history here, and ultimately there was a subsequent incident that we feel reconfirmed our position,” Czech said.
Oxley did not run for re-election for sheriff and completed his term in December. He joined Giacobbe at the Scarinci and Hollenbeck firm in January.
Oxley and Giacobbe could not be reached for comment.
For 2007, Giacobbe billed the county a total of $314,000, the highest of 20 outside lawyers. In 2006, Giacobbe worked on a report that argued against ending the county’s practice of relying exclusively on outside attorneys for legal advice, being paid $53,000 for that work alone.
Oxley is in line to become the county Republican Party chairman. He is unopposed in the vote by party leaders that will take place June 10.
If Oxley lands the influential post, Giacobbe will not seek reappointment as assistant county counsel, according to Freeholder Director Lillian G. Burry.
Giacobbe wants to avoid a potential conflict of interest, Burry said.
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