“As I said before, that was the battle I fought every day. You know, Charlotte once told me that she really saw herself as the county chairman and the county manager and the freeholder chairman all rolled into one, so.” …… Excerpt from the deposition of former Union County Manager Michael LaPolla as recorded on June 2, 2014 in the on-going matter of Richmond LaPolla vs. Union County and George Devanney.
This is the fourth in a series of blog postings resulting from the Union County Watchdog Association’s use of the Open Public Records Act to obtain the depositions in the on-going matter of Richmond LaPolla vs. Union County and George Devanney. The purpose of this series is to use the depositions to gain a glimpse into the behind the scenes workings of Union County government, where much of the peoples’ business is conducted out of public view.
More excerpts from Michael LaPolla’s deposition:
Q. – We are here to ask you about some of the allegations of the Complaint.
So let me ask you this first. You understand that this is a lawsuit in which your brother (Richmond LaPolla) claims that he is retaliated against in his employment, or was retaliated against by George Devanney because he is your brother. You understand that is the gist of what the Complaint is?
I think it is more than that, but yes.
Q. Well, what do you understand it to be, based on your reading of the Complaint?
… I thought it was things that occurred in my brother’s employment in the relation to George and to the county.
Q. Okay. Do you know of any reason why George Devanney would have retaliated against your brother because of his relationship to you?
A. I think it my relationship to him through the then county democratic chairman, Charlotte DeFilippo.
Q. And what do you mean by that?
A. Well, it was, I don’t think it was much of a secret that there was political tension between Charlotte and I from the day I got the job.
And – I don’t know how – do you want me to expound on that?
Q. What do you mean by political tension?
A. Okay, I was the first assistant prosecutor at the time. I was the prosecutor. Drew Rutolo passed away. There was an acting prosecutor that had come in from the state attorney general’s office. Another prosecutor was about to be nominated. The political ins in Trenton had changed from Jim Florio to Christie Whitman. So I was looking, knew that I would not hold the position of first assistant forever.
I was in the process of completing an application to become a Superior Court judge, and one day my phone rang, and in the course of that day, there were a series of calls.
I don’t recall, I think the first call came from Chris Bollwage and then the second one from Dan Sullivan, or vice versa. And it was basically, Ann Baron was out. They were going to appoint a new county manager. Charlotte wanted George Devanney to have the job. These guys and others didn’t, and they asked me if I was interested. And at the time, I said yes.
So there was no formal application. If that was your question, there was no formal application. There was no, you know, I did not submit a resume. I had spent six years as a freeholder, besides my five or six years as first assistant prosecutor, so I was pretty familiar to all the parties involved.
Q. Can you tell us who was on the Board of Chosen Freeholders when you were appointed county manager?
A. Linden Stender, Dan Sullivan. I actually think back then there were republicans on the board. I think Frank Lehr and a guy from Roselle Park….. Henry Kurz….
Q. Ed Force?
A. I don’t know if Ed was there. ….. I think there were three at the time.. I am not sure. I know the democrats were in control. ….
Q. So who were the other democrats….
A. …… Dan was there. Don’t think Al Mirabella and Debbie Scanlon. I think they got elected the year after I had gotten there. Carol Cohen and Nick Scutari and Walter McNeil, I think, were there. I don’t know the order in which they came on or whatever.
Q. Don Goncalves?
A. Don Goncalves was there. Absolutely…. There was a lot of changeover at the time, so I don’t recall who was there when. I do recall when I was appointed, some of the republicans were against me. So that much I remember. You don’t forget that.
Q. you indicated that you thought that Charlotte DeFilippo was against you. Do you know whether she tried to get anybody to vote against you?
A. My recollection of what occurred was there was conversations between me and Chris Bollwage, Dan Sullivan. I believe there was a meeting. Maybe even Senator Lesniak and George Devanney were there. And then after it was agreed upon that I would be the county manager – I was asked if I would agree to be county manager and George would be the deputy. I said I didn’t have an issue with that.
So, and after, it was a fait accompli, I believe it was communicated to Charlottte that I was going to be the county manager and not George.
Q. did you ever discuss that, your appointment with Charlotte DeFilippo?
A. Oh, yes.
Q. When ….
A. Either it was the next day or the day after I went to her house, which I think the address is 65 King Street in Hillside…..
She told me I was not her first choice to be the county manager. There was a lot of ranting and raving about how she had been disrespected by them and this was her, you know, decision and all this other stuff, you know.
Q. Can you remember any specific ranting and raving?
A. That I was not her first choice. She wasn’t happy about it. She had to make the best of it. She spent a lot of time criticizing Mayor Bollwage, Freeholder Sullivan. She was furious that Senator Lesniak had agreed to this, and that is basically the gist of the conversation.
Q. Do you know whether Senator Lesniak was involved at all in this?
A. I believe that he knew that this was in the works and he did not – I gather a lot of the discussions had occurred before I was even called, so I can’t, id don’t know.
I was really, at the time, you know, doing a job which was not political. We were in the same building, so I knew what was going on, but I had no, you know, no day-to-day contact with any of these people.
Q. did you ever discuss your appointment with Senator Lesniak?
A. I believe I did. I always had a good working relationship with the senator.
Q. George Devanney was your deputy. Is that right?
Q. Did you appoint him.
A. I submitted his name to the freeholders for a vote for the appointment, yes.
Q. What was George Devanney’s duties as deputy county manager?
A. Specifically, I believe economic development and strategic planning. I don’t know exactly when things were organized to put those under him, but those departments or divisions, whatever you want to call them, planning, all answered, you know, he served, I believe, as like the department head or they reported to him.
Q. Do you remember the years that you were county manager, roughly?
A. ’97 to 2002.
Q. During those years did your relationship with George Devanney change in any way?
A. All relationships change. It was not a relationship that was confrontational. If, you know, the tension existed or issues existed, that existed, all were driven by political issues with the county democratic chairwoman.
Q. And the end of your tem as county manager id you still have a decent relationship with George Devanney?
A. I would describe it as a more tense relationship. Last four or five months of it being difficult……
Q. What made it more tense or what made you perceive it as more tense?
A. My perception was that as, you know, it was right around the time of Jim McGreevey being elected governor, the months before that were anticipated that Charlotte had decided that it was time for me to leave being county manager and George to get the job.
Q. where did you get that perception from?
A. I was told
Q. Who told you?
A. By her.
Q. When did that happen and where?
A. It was one of the many times summoned to her house.
Q……. Prior to that did you still have a good working relationship with George Devanney?
Our relationship was not, it was, you know, it was tense, but not contentious. There was a, I think a fundamental disagreement over the role of the county manager and the roles of the freeholders and the role of the county democratic party and its leader, which, which sounds more philosophical, but it was, I think, consumed most of my day trying to do my job.
Q. how did you come to leave the position of County Manager?
A. …. There was a point in time where Charlotte made it clear, made it clear to me that it was time to move on. I said I liked what I was doing. I would consider other opportunities, but I wasn’t going anywhere that I didn’t want to go to.
There were also, there are no secrets in the county, so on any given day I would hear the rumor du jour about what job I was going to be offered, et cetera..
Q. Okay. So she (Charlotte DeFilippo) said it was time for your to go and you said I would consider going somewhere but I wouldn’t.—
A. Well, at first I said no, but then I am not, you know, I would consider opportunities,…..
Q. So did an opportunity come up?
A. Yes…. Executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.
Q. How did that come about….
A. I believe shortly after McGreevey got elected, he took office in June, sometime in maybe February, I received a call from the governor’s office asking me to come for an interview. I remember in the governor’s office them making a joke that they had to get me in because they couldn’t take Charlotte’s phone calls anymore.
During the interview, we had a long-ranging conversation about what I might be interested in doing. Eventually, sometime after that I received a phone call offering me that position.
Q. Did you decide to take it?
A. I was beaten down, Counsel. I was, it was a long, five-plus year battle and I decided that, you know, rather than probably – I wanted to avoid the fate of my predecessor who was forced out, so I decided to take the position.
Q. What information, if any, do you have that would support the allegations of the Complaint that George Devanney retaliated against your brother because he was your brother?
A. ….. Well, two things. While I had a cordial relationship with George, there were never any screamfests or anything like that. You know, it was my opinion, and probably the opinion of most others. That George’s agenda and Charlotte’s were probably the same.
And then after I left being county manager I don’t remember exactly when this was, when my brother was having a hard time with George and he, my brother called me to say he heard he was going to be transferred, I called George and invited him to lunch. We met the next day in Bonito’s in Union.
…. It was a civil conversation…. It was basically can we, whatever these issues are, you know, and I was not going to argue with him over any points, can we try to work this out, you know, leave Rick where he is, and he said to me, “Yes.” After I got back, I called Rick. I told him about the conversation. The next day, I believe it was the very next day, Rick was transferred. I called George and I said, “What happened? I thought you said he could stay in the position, and George’s response to me was, “Charlotte said no.”
Q. Did you ask why?
A.I didn’t ask why because I didn’t have to.
Q. And why did you feel you didn’t have to?
A. Well, because I knew if the decision was just the county manager’s, if it was just George as county manager, George would have done what he said he was going to do. When it became a political issue and this became the party making the decision and the chairman of the party – there was no love lost between us. There was no point in even trying to, you know – it went back to the fundamental issue there from my tenure, which was basically what is the appropriate role of the county chairman in government.
As I said before, that was the battle I fought every day. You know, Charlotte once told me that she really saw herself as the county chairman and the county manager and the freeholder chairman all rolled into one, so. ……
Q. … Were you an open critic of Charlotte DeFilippo?
A. I was an open critic to the extent that I, I saw my role, because as the county manager under the open, under the optional county charter law, as very specific. I had lived through a period where we had gone through a, whole group of county managers. I saw my role as not only dealing with all the county employees who I was responsible for, but also I worked for the freeholders.
That is the way the law reads. And I took that part of my job very seriously. And I did everything in my power to allow them to do their jobs without incessant political interference.
And, you know, there was a time when Charlotte was a county employee, actually after I started, for I don’t remember how long a period of time it was. She worked in human services and then, which made things very difficult. And then subsequent to that, I was asked and was very clear in my opinion that the county chairman should not be the head of the improvement authority.
NOTE: Charlotte DeFilippo was allowed to have a home office while she performed both her role as County Democratic Chairman and Executive Director of the Union County Improvement Authority, she resigned in May 2013.
DeFilippo had come under fire in the recent weeks prior to her resignation when the head of the state’s Local Finance Board, Tom Neff, questioned her stay at home job and benefits. The UCIA was seeking the finance board’s approval of approximately $20 million in bonds. It was wildly reported that Neff took exception to her $160,000 per year to supervise a staff of two people and other benefits including 35 vacation days. “It’s taxpayer money — might as well just be flushed down the toilet,” Neff was reported to have said. “I’m not supporting this. I won’t support anything that comes from the Union County Improvement Authority going forward until that situation is taken care of.”
DeFilippo’s stay-at-home job, along with the politics that co-mingled with the workings of the UCIA day to day business operations, was first reported on the County Watchers in 2011.