By Ron Leir
NORTH ARLINGTON –
Judging from the complaints he’s filed against the borough, it’s probably safe to say that Tony Abilio dreads going to his job.
Abilio, who has served as a North Arlington police officer since July 1999, says that for the past several years, he’s been subjected to “an intolerable, abusive, and hostile work environment” and “violations of (his) civil rights.
”Papers filed with Bergen County Superior Court in Dec. 2011 by the officer’s attorney Steven A. Varano allege that Abilio’s misfortunes began May 20, 2009, with the posting of a newspaper photo on the locker next to Abilio’s at police headquarters.
The photo, according to the lawsuit, depicted a disabled young man sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the Portuguese flag – an image that rattled Abilio, who is Portuguese and whose son, Cristian, suffers from Spinal Muscular Atrophy, rendering him “paralyzed and wheelchair-bound,” the lawsuit says.
That picture was packaged with a story about an organization that assists persons with disabilities.
Abilio has lost two other children “from complications due to disabilities.” This tragedy, along with Cristian’s plight, “is well known in the Department because (Abilio) has sought leave due to the death of his two children and due to Cristian’s illness.”
Abilio took down the picture which he found “highly offensive and insensitive.”
“Five days later, on May 25, 2009, (Abilio) entered the (Police) Department’s locker room and again found the same newspaper photograph reposted (on the same locker).” Once the officer assigned to that locker saw the photo, he removed it.
After Abilio filed a complaint with the Department about the incident, an internal affairs investigation was initiated and, subsequently, two officers received letters of reprimand.
Since then, the lawsuit alleges, a superior officer criticized Abilio for having “ratted out” two fellow cops and Abilio “has been totally ostracized in the Department.”
He has been hit with “bogus disciplinary charges and an unwarranted suspension,” twice bypassed for promotion, removed from the Firearms Instruction Unit, given “unfavorable shift assignments,” denied training opportunities and denied family leave to care for his child and spouse, all “in retaliation” for the initial complaint about the photo, the lawsuit says.
In November 2009, the lawsuit says Abilio was bypassed for promotion as the result of Abilio being pressured not to contest an eightday disciplinary suspension (stemming from a civilian complaint) and agreeing to waive his right to promotion for three years – which, a separate complaint alleges, was, at the time, “unenforceable.”
In August 2010, the lawsuit states, Abilio “opened his mailbox at home (in Montville) and found inside a plastic bag filled with excrement.” Abilio reported the incident to Montville Police and suggested that the incident “may be connected” to his issues with North Arlington.
Abilio is seeking payments “for seniority level back pay and front pay, restoration of all seniority and all employee benefits …, compensatory damages for pain and suffering as well as loss of earnings …, damages for reputational and career development injury” along with legal costs and “remediation of (the Department’s) discrimination and retaliation through affirmative action….”
No trial date has yet been scheduled, according to Varano.
In a separate action, Abilio filed a complaint, dated Jan. 30, 2012, with the New Jersey Merit System Practices and Labor Relations Appeals Unit alleging that the borough bypassed him in a sergeant promotion made Feb. 25, 2011.
“Despite being the number one ranking candidate the Borough, using the so-called “Rule of Three,” bypassed (Abilio) in favor of (another officer), the second ranking candidate,” the complaint states. “It should be noted that (the new sergeant’s) sister is married to the son of the Borough’s Mayor.”
And, the complaint continues, “The Borough’s resoluteness in refusing to promote (Abilio), notwithstanding his superior abilities, is the result of personal animosity and continuing retaliation against him, stemming from his assertion of his legal rights. … and not based upon merit as required by New Jersey law.”
Borough Attorney Randy Pearce had no comment on the litigation.
On May 24, the Borough Council voted to retain Thomas B. Hanrahan and Associates, a Hackensack law firm, as special counsel at $150 an hour to represent the borough in connection with the promotion bypass appeal.
On Aug. 1, Sgt. Scott Lewis retired from the North Arlington Police Department after 25 years of service. (He was earning a base salary of $139,921 and he was entitled to 135 days of accumulated terminal leave plus an annual pension, the cash value of which have yet to be calculated.) Mayor Peter Massa, a former borough cop, said the governing body “was considering additional promotions to fill the T.O. (Table of Organization)” but no decision had been made whether to proceed yet.
The T.O. for police sergeant permits up to seven appointments for that rank and Lewis’s retirement creates a vacancy in that rank.
An existing state Civil Service certified appointment list for sergeant in the North Arlington Police Dept., issued May 15, 2012, shows Abilio first on that list. Ranked second, third and fourth, respectively, are Officers Michael Hofmann, Gabriel Fiore Jr., and PBA president David Ryan.
Asked whether he has recommended anyone for promotion to sergeant, Police Chief Louis Ghione told The Observer, “That information is confidential and I’m not going to share it.”
When Massa was asked about the allegations raised in the lawsuit, he replied: “In view of the litigation, it would be inappropriate for me to comment now. He can make all the allegations he wants – proving it is another matter.”