Passaic officer accuses bosses of nixing promotion for politics

A female sheriff's officer in Passaic County says in a new court filing that her bosses pulled her promotion over fears that false rumors about her would taint a supervisor's campaign for county sheriff. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

A Passaic County sheriff’s officer claims in a new court filing that years of workplace sexual harassment culminated in supervisors withdrawing her promotion to avoid harming Passaic Democrats’ pick for county sheriff.

Passaic Sheriff’s Officer Nicole Staso accused officials of rescinding her promotion to detective mere hours after entering it into a personnel management system. An undersheriff told her the office brass were concerned that false rumors of her romantic entanglements could hurt Thomas Adamo’s campaign for county sheriff, Staso wrote in the filing.

“Bad news: I have to rescind your order. [Undersheriff] Nart [Hapatsha] came in with his hair on fire. The officers in the courthouse are already pushing rumors that I’m banging you and that’s me hooking you up,” Undersheriff Kevin Dickson said in a text message cited in Staso’s tort. “Nart doesn’t want it to blow back on Tommy [Adamo].”

Adamo, who’s chief of the county sheriff’s office, said in a statement Monday that he wasn’t responsible and the claim did not directly involve him. He suggested the tort’s filing was timed to harm his campaign for county sheriff.

“It is disheartening and frankly disgusting to see these serious issues being exploited for political gain,” he said.

In her court filing, Staso said bogus rumors about interoffice romance have dogged her since 2019, when a colleague asked “who is Staso giving a lap dance to,” sharing a still image from a jail camera showing her head and a male officer with his mouth agape.

She claims she was denied commendations over the rumors, suspended when she tried to report them, and punitively reassigned to overnight shifts that required her and her husband to sell their home to move closer to the Passaic County Jail.

Staso’s filing is a notice of tort claim, which is required in certain legal actions targeting public entities. She has not yet lodged a formal suit, and the filing included an invitation from Staso’s attorney for other parties to begin settlement talks before the litigation began in earnest.

Officials kept changing their explanations for yanking her promotion, Staso said in the filing.

First, she was told the office selected a candidate because they could speak Spanish, her tort says. Staso speaks Spanish. Next, she was told her unit was too short-staffed to let her go, but the selected candidate came from the same unit.

Dickson blamed the rumors.

“There must be 100 orders with my name on it moving male officers. I’ve never been accused of banging any of them,” he said in a text message cited in the tort.

Days later, acting Sheriff Gary Giardina offered her the promotion. Staso didn’t accept it because she was “concerned about returning to work and was fearful of further retaliation for complaining of harassment and discrimination,” the tort states.

The tort could have implications in the race to succeed the late Passaic County Sheriff Richard Berdnik following his apparent suicide in January.

Passaic County Democrats have endorsed Adamo for the seat, but the power of that endorsement has waned in the aftermath of a federal judge’s March order barring the use of organizational lines in June’s Democratic primary.

As the campaign grows increasingly acrimonious, Adamo will face off in the primary against Jerry Speziale, a former Passaic County sheriff who now is public safety director in Paterson, where the attorney general ordered a state takeover of the police department just over a year ago.

“Protecting Officer Staso was less important to these defendants than protecting Adamo’s political career,” said Sofia Quintanar, a spokeswoman for Speziale’s campaign. “Nothing like this ever happened during former Sheriff Speziale’s three terms in office and it’s clear that the department needs his leadership again right now.”

But Adamo’s campaign fired back, pointing to a 2013 jury verdict that awarded then-Capt. Lori Mambelli $76,000 in punitive and compensatory damages as part of a retaliation claim.

Mambelli, who is retired, had charged she was retaliated against after she objected to issuing civilians and supporters of Speziale police-style IDs that would have allowed them to carry firearms.

“We have already seen what happens when Jerry Speziale is in charge, and we can’t go backward,” Adamo said.

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