Florida: Tales of GOP Sex, Contract Pressures in Ocean County Government
“… Vicari and Veni are the target of a sexual harassment and discrimination suit filed by a county employee who claims Vicari condoned or instructed Veni to ‘sexually assault’ her and to create a hostile work environment. …”
By Ken Serrano
Ocean County Freeholder Director Joseph H. Vicari, the county’s top elected official, used his position to win a lucrative contract for a political ally who was shielded by Vicari’s power after the ally was accused of sexually harassing county employees, the former head of a major department said.
William A. Santos, a lifelong Republican who used to support Vicari in his re-election bids, said he was shocked and sickened when Vicari told him in 2013 to renew a $150,000-a-year, taxpayer-funded, county contract to a political ally and friend, Brick GOP leader Joseph Veni, despite the legal bidding process.
Santos, who retired last year from his $125,000-a-year job as superintendent of the county’s building and grounds department, said Vicari, the leader of the five-member all Republican freeholder board that runs the county, said he recalled the freeholder saying, “Bill, you know Joe’s going to get the contract.”
“I can’t say that, freeholder,” Santos said he responded. “And (Vicari) said, ‘Well, you know he’s going to get it. He has to get it,'” Santos recalled.
Veni and his company did get the contract, approved by a review committee and the freeholders.
Veni’s relationship with the county, though, may end up costing Vicari and taxpayers much more.
Vicari and Veni are the target of a sexual harassment and discrimination suit filed by a county employee who claims Vicari condoned or instructed Veni to “sexually assault” her and to create a hostile work environment.
Veni’s company’s contract was terminated earlier this year after the Asbury Park Press requested copies of emails he sent from his county computer to other county employees. Many of the emails depicted naked women, crude jokes and cartoons, and a link to a pornographic video. In an interview, the emails were deemed by county Administrator Carl Block as “explicit.”
“What Mr. Veni did was wrong. I fired him,” Vicari said at the Aug. 6 Freeholders meeting, after denying that Veni was his friend. “If I had one wish I’d fire him again. I wish I could do it twice.”
The freeholder called sexual harassment “disgusting,” but said that the lawsuit was groundless. He later clarified that statement, saying the claims against him were frivolous, not the lawsuit in itself.
Asked Aug. 13 if he pressured Santos over Veni’s contract, Vicari said, “It is not true and it has no merit.” He declined to discuss Santos’ claims further.
Read past stories about Joe Veni on APP.com
Santos said of the 30 or so contracts under his department, Vicari was interested only in the one involving Veni. “He was putting pressure on me to ensure Joe Veni got the contract,” Santos said. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe he would involve himself to the extent he did to insert himself into the (contracting) process.”
Veni and his firm, JMV Consulting and Inspection Service of Brick, did get the contract to oversee some county construction jobs and fix mold problems. The annual contract has been awarded to JMV since 2005 and JMV has been paid approximately $1 million over the years, according to county records.
But the emails and contract demand are just the start of the inside story of how Vicari ran the county, Santos said. He said he is stepping forward because of what he believes is Vicari’s and Veni’s unethical and improper behavior in government, and that he felt that he should have done more to protect his employees while he was superintendent.
In a rare glimpses into the inner workings of the GOP-controlled county government, comments from Santos and documents obtained by the Press through the Open Public Records Act detail that:
— JMV’s contract was tailor made. The Request for Proposals specified that the County Building and Grounds Department “desired” that one individual in any firm that applied for the work have both a Professional Engineer’s license and a commercial mold inspection and testing certificate. Santos said that, to his knowledge, except for Veni, few individuals in the State had both. Santos also stated that, over the years, other vendors who submitted proposals lacked one person with the necessary license and certification but that this did not disqualify them, although it did reduce their overall score in the bid review process. Administrator Block said no vendor was disqualified in 2012 and 2013, but Veni’s company had the highest score and the lowest price for the bid. Block could not determine if any firm had a single individual with both the desired certification and license.
Veni was a private contractor who enjoyed several of the benefits of a County employee. The Request for Proposal stated that “the County shall provide such support services as may be deemed necessary and appropriate by the County’s Authorized Representative.” Santos said that this resulted in Veni, upon award to his company of the contract, receiving a county office and support services. No other county vendor had a similar office arrangement, the county’s administrator confirmed.
— Veni billed the county $100 an hour to talk to Vicari. Veni’s invoices billed mostly in one-hour increments and in some cases charged for hour-long talks with Vicari or “a freeholder.” The bills never detailed what was discussed and Santos said he was never invited to the conversations in the office, even though he was Veni’s boss.
— County officials knew about Veni’s sexually explicit emails to employees in 2012 — two years before he was fired. Santos said he brought the emails showing graphic images, cartoons and crude jokes on Veni’s computer to county Administrator Carl Block, who said he would deal with them. Veni’s contract was not terminated until this year, when the Press obtained the emails and Veni was removed by the freeholders.
— Veni used his county email to sell guns and politics. Veni, a licensed gun dealer, used the email to develop an ad for his side business and at another time he offered a handgun for sale. In other instances, he conducted Brick politicking at election time, even reviewing bills for election signs.
— Vicari pressured Santos to have certain employees fired. Santos said Vicari would often approach him to fire an employee he didn’t like. When Santos said he needed a reason, he recalled Vicari saying, “make something up.” Santos refused and feels his five-year reappointment to the job was whittled down to just one year as a warning to play ball.
Santos said he is still a Republican, but won’t vote for Vicari or any other current freeholder.
“I have to do something, at least I’ll have a clear conscience,” Santos said. “It’s got to stop, what Joe Vicari continues to do to the employees and ultimately the taxpayers who pay for this type of misbehavior. It’s an embarrassment to the county.”
Caught in between
Vicari’s reign as a county freeholder has lasted 33 years, a period marked by enormous growth in Ocean County. Vicari, 67, the son of a butcher and retired superintendent of schools in Berkeley, has cemented his position in Ocean County politics through his support of senior citizens.
As freeholder director this year, Vicari is paid $30,000 but also takes home $110,581 a year from two government pensions.
He is seeking his 12th three-year term in November. His Democratic opponent, Timothy Ryan of Toms River, has used the sexual harassment lawsuit to attack Vicari at the last freeholder meeting and on his website.
Veni, 66, an engineer who retired after a 33-year career with the state, collects a state pension of about $57,000 a year, according to state records. He has been in the thick of Brick GOP politics, a major township for county officials because 48,000 voters of the 360,000 county voters live there. Veni volunteered as commissioner of the Brick Municipal Utilities Authority. The commissioners supervised the executive director, a job held by Ocean County Freeholder James Lacey.
After retiring from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority in 2003, Veni became a part-time Ocean County worker, making no more than $15,000 a year, a cap on income for state workers also collecting state pensions. He won his first county contract in 2005, Santos said.
His contract rate rose steadily, from an hourly rate of $75 in 2006 (the earliest year that records were available, according to the county clerk’s office) to $87.50 in 2007, to $95 in 2008 and 2009. His contracted amount leveled off in 2010 at $100, remaining at that rate through this spring when the contract was terminated. His last contract permitted him to make up to $150,000 a year.
Veni said he would discuss commenting about the allegations with his attorney, but did not return subsequent calls from the Press. His attorney, Matthew J. Behr, Cherry Hill, did not respond to requests for comment. Behr and the county have not yet issued a formal response to the sexual harassment lawsuit filed in Superior Court.
Between Veni and Vicari was Santos. He supervised Veni and took orders from Vicari.
Santos, a member of the GOP county committee from Jackson for 30 years who had done a small bit of campaigning for Vicari, stepped into the county job in 2007, leaving a better paying job as township administrator in Jackson.
Initially impressed by Vicari because of his ability to connect with his constituency, Santos said his feeling soured quickly after working under him. After being denied a reappointment for a five-year term as superintendent of the department, Santos was instead given what he termed an illegal one-year extension since the law said the appointment can be for only five years. He said Vicari and the freeholders would not reappoint him to a full term because he did not abide by Vicari’s staffing decisions, which Santos said he thought was unethical.
“Make something up. They’re no good,” Santos recalled Vicari telling him about workers he wanted fired or disciplined without cause.
And he questioned Veni’s contract.
“I was asking too many questions,” Santos said.
He is stepping forward now because he wants Vicari’s true nature as a public servant to be made public, he said.
“I will no longer be bullied by Joe Vicari,” he said.
‘A sweetheart deal’
The county’s Request for Proposals for professional engineering consulting services for 2013, and prior contracts, were custom made for Veni, Santos said. It required that the successful candidate have a professional engineering degree, familiarity with renewable energy sources and a commercial mold inspection and testing certificate from the Indoor Air Quality Association or equivalent organization. The RFP requires that one member of an engineering firm bidding on the contract to have all those qualifications.
Santos said in his opinion such a requirement was highly unusual in all the contracts that he has dealt with in his 30 years in government. Usually a firm has members with one or two certifications, but not the four that the county demanded from one person, Santo said.
“I’ve got to be this little animal that falls within this narrowly defined scope of work and they don’t exist” aside from Veni, Santos said.
The contract also gave the winner bidder — Veni — a county office, computer, clerical staff and other business support, Santo said.
No other consultant in his department had access to those services, Santos said. Other department heads he spoke to said the same.
“It’s a sweetheart deal,” he said.
Block, the county administrator since 2010, said he does not know of any other contractor being given office space and clerical support by the county, aside from temporary offices provided immediately following superstorm Sandy.
Marc Pfeiffer, a senior research fellow at Rutgers’ Bloustein Local Government Research Center and a retired deputy director of the state Division of Local Government Services, said the RFP wording did not violate the law, but it left a lot of room for politics to play a role in who received the contract. The RFPs are evaluated by a committee and then the freeholders vote to award the contract.
“I wouldn’t say there are red (flags),” Pfeiffer said. “I’d probably say they are amber. There was nothing in this that I found that was blatantly illegal.”
By amber, Pfeiffer said there are signs in the RFP that political considerations could carry a lot of weight.
“The combination of requirements (like mold certification) could have been targeted toward specific individuals,” he said.
Giving out contracts to the politically connected so they can earn more money in a way that does not affect their state pension is not unusual, he added.
Vicari asked Santos for the RFP in advance of publication in 2012, Santos said. He said Veni told him that Vicari provided a copy before the public had an opportunity to see it.
Vicari denied doing that.
County Administrator Block said giving out an advanced copy of an RFP to a vendor or contractor is wrong.
“The process obviously is that it’s not allowed,” Block said.
Billing for conversations
Veni billed up to $100 a hour for discussions with Vicari, but the bills rarely detailed what was discussed.
Santos said Vicari would enter Veni’s office to talk to the contractor, but did not include Santos in the discussions — even though Santos was head of the department and would have to oversee any work Vicari required of Veni.
Santos said that when he flagged the bills for the talks with Vicari, the descriptions became more general and did not include Vicari’s name anymore. The Press’ review of Veni’s invoices show that the county was billed 11 times to talk to Vicari or an unnamed freeholder, for a total of 10 1/2 hours, at a billing rate of up to $100 per hour. Vicari was the freeholder in charge of buildings and grounds, which has a more than $12 million budget, 145 employees, 30 to 32 contractors and 12 to 15 vendors.
Pornography and guns
Veni’s downfall in the county came after his emails sent from his county computer to county employees were made public by the Press in May. Many of the emails, images and links to web videos were sexually explicit in nature, and were sent to male and female employees alike.
Santos said that in 2012, he brought the e-mails to administrator Block. Block in a recent interview acknowledged receiving them.
Block said he told Veni to stop, but went no further.
“He had a contract and I couldn’t terminate it,” he said, adding that he made that determination himself without seeking legal advice.
Nothing happened to Veni’s contract and it was renewed in 2013 over 8 to 10 other applicants after Santos said he was taken off the three-member contract review committee. Santos said he was removed by Block via email, but Block said he did not do so.
Santos said two other freeholders mentioned the emails to Santos after he brought them to Block. Vicari never mentioned the emails, but Santos said it would be highly unusual if the other freeholders knew of the emails and Vicari did not.
Block said he did inform Vicari that there was an issue with Veni. Block said Vicari did not ask, and he was not told, about the nature of Veni’s reprimand.
Rosemary Menonna, 50, the county employee who is suing Veni, Vicari, Block and others, said in a phone interview that Block told her he informed Vicari of the e-mails in 2012. Menonna is the general supervisor of building services and worked under Santos before he retired.
The e-mails also dealt with firearms and politics.
Veni is a licensed gun dealer and runs Joe’s Gun Shop out of his home on Vine Street in Brick. One e-mail was a request to a county employee to make 20 business cards bearing the name of his gun shop.
E-mails from the county show Veni sending documentation and pricing information on a Bersa .380 pocket handgun and a Winchester bolt-action youth rifle to county employees.
Veni also called the Brick Municipal Utilities Authority from county phones. A two-month sample of phone records from March through early May 2013 from Veni’s county extension show numerous calls to the BMUA, most of them brief.
There are also e-mails that discuss purchasing $7,823 worth of campaign signs for Republican candidates in a Brick election.
In her April lawsuit, Menonna contends she is the victim of a long-term campaign of harassment by Veni, Vicari and others within county government.
Mennona’s suit claims that Vicari instructed county employees to stalk and spy on Mennona by following her home to harass her. She also alleges that Vicari “instructed and/or condoned” a close personal friend and county employee to drive his van “dangerously close” to Mennona to threaten her.
Vicari and another official stripped her of her authority as second in command of the division and made her answer to a subordinate male manager, blocked her transfer to another department and demanded her demotion, the suit claims.
All of this was done because Mennona was a female supervisor, the suit alleges. Mennona had a base salary of $66,300 last year, according to county records.
The suit claims that Vicari was aware of Veni’s behavior and gave his approval for “his close personal friend Defendant Veni to sexually assault and harass” Mennona. Mennona was forced to listen to Veni talk about “scantily clad women who showed him their breast and wrestled in Jello,” the suit claims. It also claims that Veni went behind Mennona’s desk and forced his body against her body, forced her to listen to his fantasies involving big-breasted women and straddled her desk with his genitals.
“This is a culture of harassment. She was the only female supervisor,” Mennona’s attorney, Rosemarie E. Arnold, said in an interview that in her opinion “This is one of the worst cases that I’ve ever seen.”
The suit contends that Veni gave Mennona unwanted back rubs, blew her unwanted kisses, “gawked at (Mennona) up and down at her when she wore a dress,” looked down her blouse, and attempted to grab and caress her hand on at least one occasion.
The acts were “continuous and systematic” the lawsuit contends. Mennona also alleges in the suit that Vicari harassed her and had others spy on her and threaten her because she was one of the few women supervisors in the county.
“I was fearful about a lot of things,” Mennona said in a telephone interview. “To me, Freeholder Vicari is a monster.”
Within a year of arriving, Santos found Veni’s behavior so bad with female employees that he moved Veni’s office from the second floor of the Building and Grounds headquarters to the first.
“He was going up behind their chairs and pushing them and massaging their shoulders,” he said of Veni’s interaction with female employees.
A couple of other women told me how uncomfortable they felt being around him. One woman said, ‘He gives me, like, the heebie- jeebies, Bill. It makes me feel very uncomfortable.”
Santos said he lost all respect for Vicari when he started working under him.
“That’s when I saw the true Joe Vicari. The way he’d comment on employees, the hostility,” Santos said.
Vicari received information from trusted people and would act to move, remove or demote workers in the Division of Building Services, Santos said he believed.
According to Santos, the efforts to harass Mennona came immediately after she complained about Veni’s sexual harassment.
“All of a sudden it changed,” Santos said.
Vicari said, ‘She’s incompetent. She’s lazy.’ And I said, ‘Freeholder, what exactly are you referring to? Am I missing something?’ ‘Well, she don’t do her job, Bill,’ Santos recalled.
Santos said he responded: “‘Freeholder, I don’t know that. I don’t get complaints.'”
Santos continued: “Then lo and behold, a bunch of complaints would show up from the county administrative people regarding performance of not her, but her employees because she’s a terrible supervisor. And that’s when I started checking. And I spoke to department heads and went on on-site inspections.”
Based on a review of her personnel file, Santos said Mennona had been a fine employee for 30 years.
The lawsuit is pending in Superior Court in Freehold. No trial date has been set.