TOMS RIVER - Ocean County Freeholder Director Joseph Vicari says he is "not close personal friends" with former county consultant Joe Veni, and is not to blame for any sexual harassment Veni may have inflicted on female staff members. But an Asbury Park Press investigation raises serious questions about Vicari's conduct. Among them: did he use his influence to secure lucrative county contracts for Veni, and then look the other way when Veni behaved inappropriately?
In April, a female supervisor filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ocean County and several county officials, including Vicari. The lawsuit accuses Vicari of creating a "hostile work environment" in which Veni was allowed to repeatedly harass female staff. In a brief interview outside his office, Vicari would not defend Veni, but told Kane In Your Corner, "the lawsuit against me is frivolous; there's no basis to it."
But William Santos, the former Ocean County Director of Buildings and Grounds, says Vicari repeatedly pressured him to renew Veni's consulting contract, and even designed "tailor made" job criteria to help ensure it would happen. Among other things, the County's formal Request for Proposal asks for a single person with a highly specific skill set: a professional engineer who is also a certified mold inspector and has experience with renewable energy. Santos stops short of saying only Veni could qualify, but says "the competition would be significantly limited." He also notes no one has taken the position since Veni's contract was terminated after the lawsuit was filed.
For his consulting services, Veni received contracts that topped out at approximately $150,000 a year, along with his own county office and computer. "I've never had a contractor anywhere I've worked received those type of benefits," Santos says.
And records obtained by the Asbury Park Press show Veni used his county computer to send what Santos calls "highly inappropriate" emails to staff. Santos also says Veni hung a calendar containing nude photos and explicit illustrations on the inside of his office door, and made unwanted physical advances to female staff members. Through it all, Santos says Vicari constantly downplayed Veni's behavior, at one point telling him "You're making a big deal out of nothing, Bill."
Vicari has recently blamed Santos for not coming forward with reports of Veni's behavior sooner. But Santos says he reported Veni to county officials two years ago, informing them he would not sign on to any further renewals of Veni's contract. He says the following morning, he was removed from the committee in charge of making that decision.
Vicari says he cannot address many of the allegations against him because of the pending lawsuit. "My lawyer has made it very clear not to say anything and this will be determined in court in September," he says. But he does say Santos' story "is not true and has no merit."