An insurance company representing the Town of Secaucus is prepared to offer tens of thousands of dollars to settle a four-year old lawsuit filed by Mayor-elect Michael Gonnelli and his wife, Linda.
According to Town Administrator David Drumeler, the Suburban Essex Municipal Joint Insurance Fund (JIF) has agreed to offer the Gonnellis $165,000.
During the recent Nov. 3 election, some voters questioned whether the lingering lawsuit would constitute a conflict of interest next year for Gonnelli, who was elected mayor. It appears, however, that the suit will likely be settled before Gonnelli is sworn in as mayor on January 1.
“I’m sensing this will be resolved very soon. From my understanding, the lawyers are just ironing out the details,” said Drumeler. “I think there’s already an agreement on the number. What they need to resolve now is how that figure will be broken down.”
Some voters questioned whether the lingering lawsuit would constitute a conflict of interest.
As is typical in settlements of this nature, the town of Secaucus and its employees would admit to no wrongdoing as a part of the settlement agreement.
Suit alleges harassment, retaliation
The settlement stems from a 2005 civil lawsuit the Gonnellis filed against former Mayor Dennis Elwell and ex-Town Administrator Anthony Iacono. During the timeframe covered by the suit, Linda Gonnelli was Iacono’s administrative assistant. Mike Gonnelli worked for the town as the superintendent of the Department of Public Works (DPW) and was an unpaid commissioner for the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC), a state agency that controls 88 percent of the zoning in Secaucus.
According to the lawsuit, Elwell and Iacono allegedly retaliated against the Gonnellis after Mike Gonnelli, acting as an NJMC commissioner, voted against Wal-Mart’s bid to build a gas station in town.
The alleged harassment took several forms, according to the lawsuit. In court documents, Mike Gonnelli alleges that some of his DPW duties were restricted and he was falsely accused and written up after disputes with other employees. In addition, he maintained that Elwell and Iacono leaked confidential personnel information about his prospective DPW retirement package to the media.
Court documents also state that Iacono transferred Linda Gonnelli to the police records room, where she was allegedly subjected to further harassment. The Gonnellis claim that Linda Gonnelli was forced to endure a hostile work environment where she was subjected to “pervasive offensive behavior by her supervisor” who, the suit alleges, repeatedly made racist and sexist remarks and other derogatory statements.
The suit claims that although Linda Gonnelli complained about her work environment, there was no investigation of these charges and Iacono allegedly “encouraged the continued abuse of Mrs. Gonnelli by her supervisor.”
The suit further states, “Defendants Iacono and Elwell aided and abetted said discrimination and retaliation and are, therefore, individually liable under [the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination].”
Former Mayor Elwell declined to comment on the lawsuit last week.
Elwell resigned in July after becoming one of 44 political and religious leaders to be arrested in an FBI sting operation. He was slated to run for reelection against Gonnelli earlier this month but dropped out of the race when he resigned from office. After Elwell abandoned the mayoral race, Gonnelli sailed to victory and his slate of three Town Council candidates handily beat three Elwell-allied candidates.
Iacono, Elwell’s co-defendant in the case, said last week, “This appears to be a business decision that’s being made by the Town of Secaucus. As long as there is no admission guilt, it’s a business decision that makes sense, and I wish Mike and Linda the best.”
Settlement status unresolved
The mayor-elect, however, said that he and his wife have not received word from their attorney about the settlement offer.
“I don’t know anything about a settlement offer,” Gonnelli said. “I know [Drumeler] is telling people that this is going to be settled for $165,000. But I haven’t talked to my attorney about that. And I haven’t talked to my wife. She’s a part of this lawsuit, too. I don’t know what number will be acceptable to her.”
He added it’s possible that he’ll settle his portion of the suit against Elwell and Iacono while his wife continues with her suit against the pair, though that’s unlikely.
“The suit will, in all likelihood, be settled by the end of the year,” Gonnelli said.
Officials said that the timing of the case, which has been going through the legal process for some time, is not tied to the impending inauguration.
Gonnelli said he may accept a small, token settlement amount and allow his wife to receive a larger sum.
If a settlement is reached with the couple, Secaucus taxpayers would not pay the settlement amount. The settlement would be covered by insurance money, just as it was last year when the town paid more than $4 million to a gay couple, who were allegedly harassed by members of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department, and to their attorney. (The JIF paid $250,000 of the $4 million-plus award. Two other insurance companies paid the balance.)
Such settlements could, however, impact the town’s insurance premiums with the JIF. For example, according to Drumeler, Secaucus paid the JIF $37,217 more in insurance premiums this year than in 2008, partly because of the hefty sum shelled out to the gay couple.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.