JERSEY CITY - Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop demoted Police Chief Robert Cowan last month, citing nearly a dozen lawsuits from officers who say they faced retaliation on the job. But a review of the legal claims by Kane In Your Corner finds Fulop's name is prominently mentioned in many of the allegations, and some say the mayor is using the former chief as a "scapegoat" to deflect blame from himself.
When Fulop was running for mayor and released a campaign spot addressing the issue of crime, Jersey City police had a question: how did an actor playing the role of a police officer get his hands on a real uniform? Sgt. Anthony Mussante and Officer Erik Infantes of the Special Investigations Unit were assigned to investigate. They found the uniform had been provided by Cowan, then a captain. Soon after, Fulop won the election and both officers were transferred out of the elite investigative unit. Mussante was put on patrol and Infantes was assigned to the radio room. Both are now in the process of suing the city.
"There were about five people who were involved in the investigation," Infantes says. "And every single one of those people were transferred."
"It was clear to me that it was political retaliation and I've been fearful ever since," Mussante adds.
Mussante and Infantes are among 11 police officers who have sued or filed claims against Jersey City since Fulop became mayor, alleging retaliation on the job.
"If you're not part of the Fulop team, they went out of their way to squash you," says Frank DeFazio, a now-retired officer.
DeFazio says his harassment actually started before Fulop was elected, when he spoke out about unsafe training techniques and other issues. But he contends the political atmosphere got much worse after Fulop took office. "They guys that were involved in the campaign are pretty much running the department and running amok," DeFazio says.
As the lawsuits piled up, Fulop announced the demotion of Cowan from chief to deputy chief, effective two weeks ago. Fulop admitted that part of the reason for the move was that "we had some lawsuits filed against the city", and said he wanted to send a message that "we expect people to be top performers and we'll make changes where appropriate."
But some say the demotion of Cowan isn't a complete solution because the mayor himself is part of the problem. "The mayor is the chief's boss and he oversees everything," says Gina Mendola Longarzo, the attorney for three officers currently suing Jersey City, including Mussante and Infantes. "So he can try now to make it seem like Cowan was a renegade doing this all on his own, and make Cowan the scapegoat. But the fact of the matter is that I think they were very complicit in this."
In fact, of the 11 officers who have accused Jersey City of retaliation, Kane In Your Corner found that 10 either say or imply that Fulop was somehow involved. For example, last December, four officers pulled over a woman who reportedly claimed to be friends with the mayor. All say they were soon "transferred to less prestigious and undesirable posts." Mussante and Infantes note they were transferred out of the special investigations unit concurrent with Fulop taking office, not with the appointment of Cowan, which happened months later. Another officer claims he faced "discrimination, harassment and retaliation" at the hands of Cowan, but only because he did not support Fulop for mayor.
Fulop declined to be interviewed for this report, since there are lawsuits involved. Spokesperson Jennifer Morrill says, "Mayor Fulop did not participate in the alleged retaliation nor condone such conduct. In fact, since taking office, Mayor Fulop has taken significant steps to…prevent politically motivated and retaliatory actions," including hiring a new chief as well as a public safety director who was not from Jersey City.
Longarzo is not convinced. "To say that Fulop didn't get his hands dirty in any of this is really being naïve if you believe that," she says.