By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO June 28, 2005 Last Thursdays explosive disciplinary hearing on the Sullivan County Department of Public Works (DPW) was notable for the mountain of charges that went back and forth, as well as for the seemingly endless speculation as to what the final consequences will be for those who participated in one of Sullivan Countys largest corruption scandals involving top administrators.
Last Thursdays six-hour hearing was meant for former Deputy Commissioner of Public Works and Director of Operations Phil Nicoletti and former Director of Parks, Recreation and Beautification Richard Caraluzzo.
Caraluzzo didnt show up, and the hearing was adjourned to next month. Caraluzzos attorney, Jonathan Lovett of Westchester County, said that Caraluzzo was not properly subpoenaed by a process server.
Former DPW Commissioner Peter Lilholt gave in-depth testimony which detailed how he, along with DPW Chief Fiscal Administrative Officer Amy Winters and the two charged, allegedly planned to break into the countys personnel office in May 2004. He also admitted that the group, plus engineering supervisor Bob Trotta, entered the countys personnel office on another early morning in 2002. Winters herself never physically entered the office on either occasion, he claimed.
Lilholt also listed a laundry list of items that he had borrowed from the department over the years but has since returned.
His long testimony and admissions led Lovett and others to believe that Lilholt had been granted immunity by Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen Lungen, who is monitoring the case.
Before Lilholt testified, he met with Lungen, his own attorney Mike McGuire (a former assistant attorney in Lungens office) and County Attorney Sam Yasgur. Lilholt denied receiving immunity, and Lungen declined to comment.
Nicoletti was charged by Yasgur with improperly using his pass key to enter the personnel office in 2004 to find the file of an equal employment complaint made against the department by an outgoing crane operator James Donnelli. Donnelli alleged that he and others were harassed by DPW administrators.
Nicoletti and Lilholt had pass keys to enter most of the countys buildings and offices in case of an emergency.
The group allegedly entered the office first in 2002, according to Yasgur. Here, Yasgur claimed that both Nicoletti and Caraluzzo made photocopies of documents relating to a county-ordered ten-page survey of employees, which asked them questions about their job duties, level of responsibility and education levels.
Lilholt said during his testimony that the DPW was considered the black sheep of the county government and that DPW brass felt the education question was unfair since the staff was mostly blue-collar workers. They believed they would receive a lower pay than other employees with more advanced degrees.
Among the surveys they copied were of former County Attorney Ira Cohen and current Commissioner of Fiscal Administration Richard LaCondre. The copies were later found in the office closet of Winters.
Yasgur accused Caraluzzo of photocopying the file as well as the notes of Carolyn Hill, the countys assistant personnel officer and equal employment officer, who had interviewed several DPW employees on the matter. Hill said the files and notes were locked in a cabinet in her office. She kept the key to the cabinet in her desk. The interviews were supposed to remain confidential, she said.
Hill later reported her findings to Lilholt, Sullivan County Manager Dan Briggs and Cohen, in which she made recommendations to improve the work environment.
Yasgur also charged Nicoletti with creating a hostile workplace where he told people they would not be promoted on the basis of their religion.
The third and most expansive charge related to the misuse and theft of county property. Under this charge, Yasgur detailed how Nicoletti ordered two power washers and two parts washers with county funds, and divided them up between himself and Lilholt.
Nicoletti was accused of stealing a tractor-mounted rotary tiller worth over $1,000 and several welders.
Yasgur charged Nicoletti with ordering county workers to work on his sons motorcycle and said that Nicoletti took additional items from the county over the years.
Furthermore, Yasgur stated that Nicoletti admitted what he did back in February, and he was placed on administrative leave. Lilholt retired that same day.
Nicoletti wasnt charged until May 26, the same day Caraluzzo was. They are the only two to be charged thus far.
However, Winters has been on paid administrative leave since April 18. Yasgur will not comment on the case nor the investigation. The original investigation involved the Albany law office of Roemer, Wallens & Mineaux working in conjunction with the county attorneys office.
The final charge involved a shocking tale of how the group (minus Trotta) allegedly met with Sullivan County Legislator Kathleen LaBuda at the Quickway Diner in Bloomingburg in an attempt to save their jobs. After they had been put on leave by the county, they formed a list of county employees who they believed had acted improperly.
Among them was Desmond Wisniski, the DPWs bridge superintendent and the brother of LaBuda. The group allegedly threatened LaBuda that they would go to the press and detail Wisniskis alleged longstanding affair during work hours.
According to Lovett, LaBuda who is the chair of the Legislatures Public Works Committee asked them whether they had any information on Briggs.
Yasgur said he was given a copy of the list created by the DPW employees. He also charged Nicoletti with attempting to intimidate witnesses who may be called on during the procession.
Lovett responded that the witnesses Yasgur would call have also stolen from the county. In addition, he claimed that hearings officer Michael Wittenberg had no jurisdiction in the case and that the appointment of him by Briggs was illegal.
Wittenberg is a management and labor relations consultant out of Westchester County.
Lovett stated that Yasgur has told both Nicoletti and Caraluzzo that they will never work for the county again.
Others Spoke, Too
And Some Didnt
The main thrust of Lovetts opening remarks was that other county employees had also acted inappropriately, although none of his accusations approached the scale of charges made and allegedly admitted to by the five top DPW employees at the heart of the case.
Pamela Rourke, Sullivan County Commissioner of Personnel, gave testimony in which she noted her office door is always locked. She said she expected the surveys taken in 2002 to be confidential.
Nicoletti never testified or answered any questions, because Lovett said Yasgur told his clients that they would be criminally prosecuted. Yasgur responded that there could be new grounds for insubordination charges if Nicoletti doesnt answer.
Lilholts Words Hold Key Info
Clearly, Lilholts testimony was the most startling event of the day. Lilholt began his career in the department back in 1966, before a stint in the Army during the Vietnam War, then returned to work for the county. He was appointed commissioner of the DPW in 1994.
Lilholt said that in 2004, when five of the employees looked over the interviews involving their departments staff, he said they were not surprised by those who had spoken out against the administration because they had a reason to do so. He did not elaborate.
He said they went into the office to see if the statements were accurate. And he acknowledged that the interviews were confidential.
Lilholt admitted that the pass key he and Nicoletti had was not meant for unlimited access but rather for emergency repairs.
As for the biggest-ticket item he took the power washer Lilholt claimed that Nicoletti ordered two and delivered one to his house. Nicoletti allegedly used the washer to clean the mud off dirt bikes, while Lilholt used it to wash off his boat. Lilholt has since returned his to the county.
Nicoletti also allegedly purchased two parts washers and also delivered one to Lilholts house. Lilholt said he never used it and has since returned it to the county.
Other items that Lilholt said he borrowed but returned after he retired were global positioning system units, a backpack blower, and a tent. He said he also borrowed walkie-talkies a couple times for hunting trips but would return them afterwards.
Lilholt admitted under examination by Lovett that he had been given the questions Yasgur would ask him in the days before the hearing.