JERSEY CITY - Some politically connected police officers in Jersey City are getting lucrative benefits that don't go to others, including take-home cars and massive amounts of overtime, a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds. In one case, a captain, named to his post by Mayor Steven Fulop in the mayor's second week on the job, raked in nearly $24,000 in overtime pay over a two-month period, even though his timesheets showed he only worked four overtime hours. In the wake of the investigation, the city says it is auditing take-home vehicles and overtime department-wide.
Kelly Chesler is a lieutenant in the Jersey City Police Department's Motorcycle Squad, but she gets a benefit the city claims only goes to top brass or undercover units: a take-home, city-owned Dodge Durango. Kane In Your Corner watched Chesler use the SUV to commute daily from Morris County, an 80-mile round trip.
Officers Michael Maietti and Anthony Ruocco, clerks in the Motorcycle Squad, also commute daily in city-owned vehicles, Kane In Your Corner found. Maietti commutes 48 miles a day in a city-owned Dodge Magnum, while Ruocco commutes 56 miles daily in one of two city-owned vehicles.
The Jersey City Police Department Motorcycle Squad is run by Capt. Joseph Ascolese, who was personally named to his post by Mayor Fulop a week after Fulop took office. Jersey City spokesperson Jennifer Morrill claims Ascolese was promoted because he lives in Jersey City and Fulop wanted more residents in command positions. But Kane In Your Corner never saw Ascolese commute to a Jersey City residence; he and his take-home vehicle, a Cadillac Escalade, were repeatedly tracked to a home in Bergen County, where records indicate he has lived since 2002.
Taxpayer advocate Jerry Cantrell, president of the Common Sense Institute of New Jersey, calls the free rides "another example of the abuse that goes on in this state," adding, "Why shouldn't any average citizen be able to access free gas?"
When Kane In Your Corner asked for a list of all personnel assigned take-home cars, the city refused as a matter of "security and surveillance," saying that they are predominantly assigned to undercover officers. But internal sources, speaking anonymously, say the motorcycle officers do not meet the criteria to be assigned vehicles for off-duty use.
Frank DeFazio, who recently retired from the motorcycle squad, agrees. He says there were never any unmarked units assigned to the Motorcycle Squad in the past because, "we don't run any plainclothes operations."
The apparent abuse is happening despite Fulop's high-profile crackdown on take-home vehicles. In one of his first initiatives as mayor, Fulop eliminated many of them and installed GPS units in others.
The free rides are not the only unusual benefit some Motorcycle Squad officers are receiving. Some are also racking up huge amounts of overtime, not always justified by time sheets. In January and February, as New Jersey was hosting the Super Bowl, payroll records show the typical squad member received about $3,000 in overtime pay. However, Maietti racked up over $10,000, Chesler more than $13,000 and Ascolese a staggering $23,800.
The reason for Ascolese's massive overtime payout is a mystery. Documents provided by Jersey City under New Jersey's Open Public Records Act show he worked just four hours of overtime during that period. That means if the city's records are correct, he would have been paid nearly $6,000 an hour for four hours of work.
Fulop and other Jersey City officials declined to be interviewed. In a written statement, Public Safety Director James Shea says the city is "currently conducting an audit of both vehicle assignments and overtime."
Attorney Gina Mendola Longarzo, who represents three police officers currently suing Jersey City, says the department has long had issues with disparate treatment. "There's definitely an A Team and B Team," she says, adding "If you are politically on the right side, you're going to get preferential treatment, you're going to get the overtime details, you're going to get the plum assignment. If you're on the wrong side of the political line, you're going to be punished."
Last month, Fulop addressed the lawsuits by demoting former Jersey City Police Chief Robert Cowan, and Shea says the Kane In Your Corner investigation into cars and overtime highlights another reason the demotion was necessary. It should be noted, however, that Fulop also promoted Cowan to chief to begin with.