By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO June 24, 2005 In a stunning hearing which ran nearly six hours yesterday at the Sullivan County Government Center, the lid was blown off an investigation of the top level management of the Sullivan County Department of Public Works (DPW).
The hearing, which was made public out of the request of defendant Phil Nicoletti, who previously was the DPWs Director of Operations and Deputy Commissioner, exposed alleged corruption and unethical conduct among the top brass of the department.
The hearing was meant for Nicoletti as well as Richard Caraluzzo, the former Director of Parks, Recreation and Beautification. Both were suspended without pay in late May. Nicoletti was put on paid leave back in February, while Caraluzzo was placed on paid administrative leave in March.
Amy Winters, the Chief Fiscal Administrative Officer for the department, was put on paid administrative leave in April but has not been charged.
However, Nicoletti declined to answer any questions at the hearing, and Caraluzzo did not show up. According to their lawyer, Jonathan Lovett out of the White Plains firm of Lovett and Gould, Caraluzzo was not properly subpoenaed.
DPW Commissioner Peter Lilholt was the only DPW employee to testify at length during the proceeding, and he admitted to what could be one of the county governments largest scandals in recent years.
Lilholt retired the same day, February 25, that Nicoletti was placed on paid administrative leave.
A fifth DPW administrator, Bob Trotta, who is the engineering supervisor for the department and the airport engineer at the Sullivan County International Airport, was mentioned throughout the proceedings. Lilholt named Trotta as being among those who entered the personnel office in the early hours of the morning to locate and copy documents relating to a personnel investigation.
Trotta, along with Lilholt and Winters, has not been charged. County Attorney Sam Yasgur refused to comment on whether Trotta is under investigation.
Before Lilholt spoke, both Yasgur and Lovett read opening statements which outlined how Nicoletti, Caraluzzo, Lilholt and Winters (and Trotta, according to Lovett) planned to enter the countys personnel office last year in May to obtain the personal notes of Carolyn Hill, the countys assistant personnel officer and equal employment officer. Hill had interviewed a number of DPW employees after receiving a complaint from James Donnelli, a crane operator, who was leaving the department. According to Hill, Donnelli accused the administration of the DPW with harassment of himself and other employees.
In his opening statement, Yasgur charged Nicoletti and Caraluzzo with creating a hostile work environment where employees were not promoted due to their religion.
The other charge against the two, as read by Yasgur, was improperly using their pass keys to enter the personnel office. The administration of the DPW has pass keys which allows them to enter nearly all county buildings and offices in case of an emergency. The two, along with Lilholt, allegedly entered the office on two occasions once in May 2004 and previously in 2002, when they allegedly took documents involving high-ranking county officials such as former County Attorney Ira Cohen and present Commissioner of Financial Management Administration Richard LaCondre.
At the time, the county was conducting a survey of all of its employees to determine the appropriate salary increases for its staff. Some of the questions in the survey involved the level of education among the workers.
According to the testimony of Lilholt, the DPW hierarchy took offense to the question, since many of the DPW employees were blue-collar workers who did not have as high an education as other high-level county workers.
The third charge involves the theft of and misuse of county property. The most serious of the stolen property accusations centered around Nicoletti allegedly purchasing two high-pressure washers and splitting them between himself and Lilholt.
Lilholt has since returned his to the county.
Nicoletti is also alleged to have ordered county staff to work on his sons motorcycle on county time.
According to Yasgur, Nicoletti admitted to the charges. His lawyer did not deny any of the charges either. Instead, he claimed that other county employees had also misused county property.
Lovett spent an hour and a half intensely questioning Lilholt, who was subpoenaed by Yasgur through his attorney, Michael McGuire.
The questions seemed to suggest that Lovett was trying to get Lilholt to admit that he led the forays into the personnel office, while Lilholt maintained that it was a collective decision on the part of the DPW administration.
The hearing was adjourned until a to-be-determined date in mid-July.