Former Clark Officer Takes Aim At Prosecutor’s Office in Lawsuit

By KATIE MOEN
For Union County HAWK

CLARK — As Clark residents struggle to reconcile repeat calls for the resignation of six-term Mayor Sal Bonaccorso against allegations of racism and misconduct, the former police officer responsible for capturing the now-infamous secret recordings says the township still has more to answer for.

“My recordings are nothing compared to the recordings that were submitted prior to me. You will see a pattern,” Antonio Manata told NBC in an exclusive interview that aired last week.

Mr. Manata, who currently is suing the Union County Prosecutor’s Office in Federal Court, said that the office is holding up his pension due to pending internal affairs investigations. He also claimed during the interview and in his lawsuit that four other municipal employees were given the opportunity to settle out of court under similar circumstances.

However, a search of the New Jersey Court system revealed a filed lawsuit and settlement with three of the officers listed in Mr. Manata’s federal complaint. A publicly-accessible settlement was reached with the township and former Clark Police officers Steven Francisco, Martin Venezio and Eric Richter in 2018. The settlement indicates that the three men were passed up for promotions in “direct violations of their civil rights.” Though the settlement does not provide many details as to the nature of the original complaint, which was not publicly accessible due to it’s age, it does indicate that any “audio recordings, video recordings and/or photographs” obtained by the officers would be destroyed as part of the agreement. According to the settlement, which allowed them to retire with their benefits packages intact, Mr. Francisco and Mr. Richter were each paid $120,000 and Mr. Venezio was awarded $135,000.

Though (Open Public Records) OPRA requests for additional information were not returned by the date of publication, another pending lawsuit, this one filed in February of this year against Clark Patrol Officer Christopher Tuccio, the Township of Clark, its police department and the County of Union, indicates that other, more damaging issues could persist within the aforementioned agencies.

The suit, filed by Idelfonso Colon, alleges the use of extreme force by Officer Tuccio during “what should have been a routine traffic stop.”

According to the civil docket, “[Mr.] Tuccio, along with other unknown Clark officers, unlawfully, maliciously and intentionally used excessive brute force, brutally attacked and wrongfully arrested Mr. Colon.” The suit goes on to allege that Mr. Tuccio “incited a verbal and eventual physical altercation with [Mr. Colon].”

The lawsuit states that Mr. Colon was “forcibly removed from his vehicle and slammed down onto the pavement” before being charged with obstruction of justice.

As these and other additional allegations continue to surface surrounding the Township of Clark and its various departments, the state is starting to step up its involvement at the municipal level.

On Friday, the Attorney General’s Office announced that its New Jersey Office of Public Integrity and Accountability would be taking over any future investigations. According to a statement issued by the Attorney General’s office, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, which has had control of the township’s police department since July 2020, “has been directed to maintain their supersession authority over the department until further notice.”

A spokesman for the New Jersey State Attorney General’s Office noted, “Allegations of misconduct by the leadership within the Clark Police Department, as well as township leadership, are the subject of an ongoing investigation being conducted by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, and overseen by the Office of the Attorney General. The Office remains committed to a public release of our collective findings at the conclusion of the investigations, which will be comprehensive, thorough, and impartial. The Office of the Attorney General takes seriously the responsibility to ensure that the policing in our communities is fair and impartial, and never driven by bias, hate, or prejudice.”

Mr. Manata, meanwhile, says the prosecutor’s office also should shoulder some of the blame for what has been allowed to transpire within the municipality.

In the federal suit filed by Mr. Manata on Thursday, the former police officer claims the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, now led by William Daniel, and the New Jersey State Attorney General’s Office, now led by Matthew Platkin, failed to hold leaders of Clark Township accountable within an appropriate time frame.

“The handling of the investigation is lacking. They were in possession of evidence that showed racism and gender discrimination and they did nothing,” Mr. Manata said during the NBC interview. “The Union County Prosecutor’s Office has never approached me and asked me to testify or give any statements in reference to the content of the tapes until January that just passed two months ago. And the only reason why we discussed the contents of those tapes is because they were investigating me for making the tapes.”

The lawsuit, however, tells a different story.

“In May or June of 2020, approximately six months after the settlement agreement was signed, Lt. Brian O’Malley and another detective from the Union County Prosecutor’s Office of Professional Standards Units appeared at [Mr. Manata’s] home to question him about allegations of wrongdoing at Clark PD,” the lawsuit states, effectively negating Mr. Manata’s claims that he was not asked to speak with the Union County Prosecutor’s Office until January of this year. The lawsuit goes on to state that Mr. Manata refuted the 2020 request for comment by referencing his settlement with the township and its confidentiality clause.

According to the lawsuit, five pending internal affairs investigations against Mr. Manata were supposed to be dropped as part of his settlement agreement with the township. But, the suit alleges, the county chose to keep those investigations open even after assuming control of the police department. Mr. Manata claims in the suit that he was denied access to his personnel records and the results of said investigations for more than a year.

When the information was eventually made available, Mr. Manata claims that his records contained “significant inaccuracies and outright falsehoods,” which caused him to become ineligible for certain work-related opportunities.

The Union County Prosecutor’s Office, meanwhile, served Mr. Manata with notification on January 11 of this year that he was “being investigated for alleged violations of the Clark Police Department policy regarding surreptitious recording, failing to admonish or report derogatory language being used in his presence and an alleged attempt to obtain internal affairs investigation information.”

As the result of the pending UCPO investigation, Mr. Manata currently is ineligible to receive his monthly pension.

According to information provided by the New Jersey Department of the Treasury Division of Pensions and Benefits, Mr. Manata was set to officially “retire” from the force and start collecting his monthly pension of $7,569.90 on March 1 of this year. But, said Valerie Palma DeLuisi, Mr. Manata’s attorney, since the prosecutor’s office is still actively “investigating” Mr. Manata’s record of work, the payments do not have to be released until the investigation is complete.

“I believe this ongoing investigation into my client is retaliatory in nature,” Ms. DeLuisi told Union County HAWK last week. “I believe they are targeting my client. They want to discredit the messenger and I think they are in direct violation of New Jersey’s whistleblower laws.”

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