Mayor Lorenzo Langford's decision three years ago to cut city costs by demoting more than 30 police officials breached an agreement between the city and former Atlantic City police Chief John J. Mooney III, a state Superior Court judge has ruled.
Mooney, who resigned on the eve of his planned demotion in May 2010, is entitled to damages sustained as a result of the breach that deprived him of his career and its financial benefits, according to the ruling filed last week by Judge Carol Higbee.
Exactly how much compensation Mooney might see has yet to be decided. Also unclear is what Higbee's decision might mean for the future of the Police Department's leadership now headed by Ernest Jubilee.
In the 2010 lawsuit against the city, Langford and former Public Safety Director Christine Petersen, Mooney seeks damages for the two and a half years that remained in his agreement with the city. He also seeks reinstatement as police chief -- a job he "absolutely" still wants, he said Monday.
"I don't know exactly how I can be compensated for three years of my life that passed while this matter pended," Mooney said when reached at home Monday. "The visitors were deprived during that period of time. If you look back into what occurred with the Police Department and how volatile the situation was, I believe stable leadership would have been a benefit."
Mooney resigned in May 2010, ending his 34-year career on the eve of Mayor Lorenzo Langford's plans to demote him. A vocal political adversary of Langford's, Mooney has contended that his demotion was part of a contrived scheme intended to disguise illegal and politically motivated activities and put the mayor fully in control of city law enforcement. At the time, the two had engaged in several public feuds over Langford's decision to suspend the use the K-9 patrols and re-create the position of public safety director.
Langford, meanwhile, who faces a Democratic primary contest today, said at the time that the move was made purely for budgetary reasons along with the city's decision to lay off 20 officers.
A call to the Mayor's Office was not returned Monday. Instead, questions were directed to the city's Teaneck-based attorney George Frino who said he believes the decision was erroneous and will be appealed.
"We're not too terribly excited about the outcome. We expected everything to fall into what amounts to having to try the case, but we think the city is going to prevail eventually," Frino said.
Higbee's ruling was based on a 2006 settlement agreement between Mooney and the city following a separate claim that Mooney had been wrongly bypassed for deputy police chief. Mooney dropped his action in exchange for a promotion to chief.
According to his memorandum of understanding with the city that extended through December 2012, he would have earned a base salary of $192,000 in his last year, plus longevity and other compensation. When he retired in 2010, his pension was $167,000 a year.
"Even if the contract claim is valid -- and we don't think it is -- the net pension benefit against the contract balance is not a huge difference," Frino said.
According to court documents, the city doesn't dispute its settlement agreement with Mooney but has argued that its memorandum of understanding with the former police chief was never valid because it was not approved by City Council.
Higbee said that argument leaves the city liable regardless because it either breached the settlement agreement by never entering into binding memorandum of understanding or breached the terms of the memo by demoting Mooney.
Still unaddressed are Mooney's claims that he was retaliated against for reporting what he believed to be inappropriate acts by the city administration, and that the city engaged in reverse discrimination. Higbee's ruling preserved those claims, expected to be decided at trial at a later date.
At issue in one instance is a May 2010 memo from Langford to Petersen asking her to investigate and report back to him on allegations against a police captain under criminal investigation who is not named in the ruling.
"A civilian public safety director is responsible for setting 'broad guides' for the efficient operation of the department. She has no authority to get in the business of conducting law enforcement investigations. That responsibility falls squarely within the bounds of the chief's duties," Higbee wrote.
Petersen, a Jersey City native, left the position after it was discovered that she received a pension from her previous position without waiting the requisite amount of time in taking a new job in Atlantic City.
Mooney's attorney, John Donnelly, said he's confident the case will be heard this summer.
"We're especially impressed that the judge noticed and found that not only did (Mooney) lose money in this matter but he lost a career," Donnelly said. "He was a cop's cop and worked up the ranks for 35 years to have that taken away. He can't really be adequately compensated for that."
Copyright 2013 - The Press of Atlantic City, Pleasantville, N.J.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service