Thursday, July 8, 2021

Police sergeant sues City of Wayne officials

Abraham Hughes
A City of Wayne police officer has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking a jury trial and damages in excess of $75,000 for alleged breach of duty by Wayne City Manager Lisa Nocerini.

The suit also names Mayor John Rhaesa, members of the Wayne City Council and Personnel Director Alyse Leslie as defendants in depriving Hughes of his rights under the 14th Constitutional Amendment. 

In his lawsuit, Police Sgt. Abraham Hughes, who joined the Wayne department in February of 2002, alleges that Nocerini interfered with and corrupted the process conducted in the hiring a replacement for retiring Police Chief Alan Maciag who retired in December of 2018.

Hughes claims that Nocerini changed the scoring criteria for the job after he attained the highest marks on testing performed by EMPCO, an independent consulting agency hired to test applicants for the chief's job.

A letter from EMPCO Director of Marketing/Project Management Charles L. Castle, however, denies that claim.

The opening for the chief's job was posted in the department on Dec. 19, 2018 and the qualifications listed were a verbal interview, a four-year college degree and testing to be conducted by EMPCO.

Hughes, Lt. Ryan Strong and another police sergeant applied for the position, although the third applicant withdrew before testing. According to the court filings, on Feb. 20 Strong and Hughes were informed by EMPCO that the sole qualification for the open chief of police position would be the objective results, score-and-score-only of the EMPCO testing process. That testing was completed at Wayne City Hall on March 7, 2019. Hughes was subsequently informed by Nocerini and Leslie that Strong, who was then acting chief, had received a score of 90 while Hughes had received a score of 87 on the testing. Strong was then named to the chief of police position.

In court filings, Hughes recounts that on or about March 14, 2019, he was informed by a third party that one of the assessors who conducted the EMPCO testing confirmed that, in fact, Hughes had received the higher score of the two candidates tested. 

Hughes also claims that in a later meeting Castle confirmed that Hughes had received the higher test score. The court filing also claims that Castle confirmed that Nocerini then intervened in the EMPCO testing process to attempt to change the criteria used in the scoring to ensure the job went to the candidate of her choice. Castle has denied both those assertions in a letter to the city.

Hughes claims in the lawsuit that he met with Strong to voice his concerns that Nocerini had “arbitrarily and secretly added the subjective elements to the process while EMPCO was in the process of completing it.”

Hughes' complaints resulted in an internal investigation of Nocerini's interference by city attorney Anthony Chubb and Leslie. Despite Hughes' complaints through his union representative about the obvious conflict of interest in an investigation of the city manager being performed by individuals she directed, the investigation proceeded and claimed to find no wrongdoing on Nocerini's part in the chief's selection process.

In Hughes' lawsuit, he claims that Nocerini “has a reputation of using nepotism, personal favoritism, intimidation and retaliation in conducting City of Wayne business.”

The court filing references an independent investigation of Nocerini conducted in 2018 by a third-party professional which documented a “pervasive culture of mistrust, spying, favoritism, nepotism, intimidation, retaliatory conduct and other forms of corruption in the conduct of City of Wayne business, primarily by Nocerini.” 

The 50-page report documented multiple examples of misconduct and mismanagement by Nocerini following interviews with about 30 individuals. The members of the Wayne City Council opted to take no action regarding Nocerini following the report, despite multiple corrective recommendations by the investigators.

The current lawsuit further claims that the “culture of personal power Nocerini exercises is tolerated, acquiesced to or ratified by Rhaesa, Leslie and city council members which encourages further abuse of power.”

 The court documents state that this policy allowed Nocerini to “steer appointments and promotions based upon her personal whims and to refuse to implement or follow objective criteria in the selection of appointments or promotions in the city.”  

Rhaesa denies the claims in the lawsuit and said, “The lawsuit is completely without factual or legal merit, and will be aggressively defended. Testing for the police chief position was done by EMPCO, which is an independent entity.

“Officials from EMPCO have provided a letter outlining the process and have confirmed that the allegations being made regarding the results of the assessment  for the City of Wayne's Chief of Police position are erroneous,” Rhaesa said in an email to which he attached a copy of the EMPCO letter.

 “If a conversation did take place between an EMPCO assessor and a third party, the information provided was in error, or it was misinterpreted or misconstrued by the third party,” the letter, signed by Castle, states.

“The current Chief scored the highest in the EMPCO testing and was unanimously selected by the City Council,” Rhaesa concluded.