By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO July 19, 2005 The hearing for Sullivan County Department of Public Works Director of Operations and Deputy Commissioner Phil Nicoletti on corruption charges continued Friday at the Sullivan County Courthouse.
Nicoletti was defended by Westchester County attorney Jon Lovett, who appeared once again in front of management and labor relations consultant Michael Wittenberg, appointed by Sullivan County Manager Dan Briggs to preside over the case.
Lovett is also representing Richard Caraluzzo, Director of Parks, Recreation and Beautification, and Amy Winters, the senior fiscal administrative officer for the department. All three have been suspended with pay, but only Nicoletti and Caraluzzo have been charged. Nicoletti and Caraluzzo were suspended for 30 days without pay on May 27, but after 30 days, they must be compensated, until their hearing concludes.
Former Commissioner of the DPW Peter Lilholt retired in February after being asked to resign. A fifth DPW employee engineering supervisor Bob Trotta is alleged to have assisted in breaking into the countys personnel office but has not been charged.
On Friday, Lovett once again attempted to persuade Wittenberg that it was common practice for employees of the department to work on personal vehicles belonging to themselves or others on county time. One of the charges against Nicoletti is that he instructed staff to work on his sons motorcycle on county time with county equipment.
During cross-examination of county witness Ronn Darling, the DPW garage superintendent, Lovett questioned him about such work at the Barryville garage. Darling admitted that about a dozen employees routinely worked on motor vehicles with county equipment on county time, borrowed county tools and equipment for their own personal use on a regular basis before he was superintendent and over the first 2 years of his tenure.
He said the practice finally came to an end after he and fellow administrators Desmond Wisniski and Charlie Winters were told to stop it by Briggs.
Lovett also brought up the case of Lawrence Ruff, who still works in the department. According to Lovett, Ruff filed a false insurance claim while working at the county airport. Lovett said Ruff pocketed $5,000, and Lilholt said he was eventually suspended for six months without pay. Lovett said Ruff didnt pay the money back until this year.
Lilholt took the stand in what could be his final testimonial appearance during this saga.
Nicoletti will not testify, however.
Lilholt could be called again during the hearing for Caraluzzo. Lovett has speculated that Lilholt, who is represented by former Assistant District Attorney Mike McGuire, received immunity from Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen Lungen. Lungen will not comment on the matter, but his office is monitoring the hearings.
Lungen sat in on the first hearing, while assistant DA Joey Drillings watched the most recent version. Also in attendance was Pete Scalia, an investigator with the New York State Police. He said his office was also monitoring the process.
Lovett was relentless in his questioning and repeatedly found inconsistencies in Lilholts recollection of various events, including two forays into the county personnel office. Time and again, Lilholt answered, I dont recall or said he was confused.
However, even Wittenberg acknowledged that he, too, was confused by some of Lovetts questions.
Lovett confronted Lilholt on a number of points, causing Sullivan County Attorney Sam Yasgur to object several times. Lovett argued that the credibility of Lilholt was at issue.
On Friday, Lilholt admitted slightly more than before. He said that he signed the requisitions that authorized the purchase of two parts washers and two high-powered washers with county funds.
Last time, he said that Nicoletti had ordered the washers and delivered them to his home. On Friday, he said that Nicoletti delivered the washers to his home, although he wasnt there when they arrived. But Darling would testify that he gave the washers to Nicoletti when they arrived, and Nicoletti put them in his county truck.
Ultimately, Lilholt never used the parts washer, although he eventually used the power washer on his boat. He kept both for over two years, and returned them both after his retirement.
Darling testified that his predecessor ordered the first two high-pressure washers and told him to give them to Nicoletti when they arrived. He also said that he ordered three welders at the instruction of Nicoletti. The two met at the DPW facility in Harris, and Darling placed the welders in the truck of Nicoletti, saying he never saw them again.
In 2003, Darling himself put in the requisition for the parts washers after being instructed to do so. They were delivered to the Sullivan County Adult Care Center, where Darling picked them up and brought them to Nicoletti in Harris.
Regarding entry by Lilholt and others into the countys personnel office, Lilholt said that he only stood by the door during the first break-in. At the time, DPW management decided to go in, in order to read documents relating to a county-ordered survey of its staff to determine a scale for pay raises.
Lilholt said that he, Caraluzzo, Nicoletti and Trotta went over the documents for about 15 minutes in the office of Winters. The documents were left in her office, until they were located earlier this year as part of the investigation.
The second time Lilholt and several top DPW administrators entered the county personnel office, he said it was to read the notes of private interviews held between assistant personnel officer Carolyn Hill and DPW employees regarding a complaint lodged against the department by Jim Donello, a former crane operator, who alleged widespread harassment by top brass.
On Friday, Lilholt said he was only in the room for 15-20 seconds the second time. But, as Lovett pointed out, Lilholt said he was there for 45 minutes during questioning in February by Mary Roach, who was part of the initial investigation into the department. Lovett asked him if he proposed a third entry into the office, which Lilholt denied.
Lilholt once again admitted to taking a backpack blower, walkie-talkies, a welder, and a global positioning system that belonged to the county. He would return the walkie-talkies after hunting trips but kept the others, including a county-owned tent, after his retirement. He said the welder, like the washers, was dropped off at his driveway.
After the investigation commenced, Caraluzzo, Lilholt, Nicoletti and Winters met to create a list of county employees who allegedly acted improperly. They then met in Bloomingburg with Sullivan County Legislator Kathleen LaBuda, the chairwoman of the Public Works Committee, and asked her to save the jobs of the the in jeopardy.
Lilholt said he told LaBuda that they were hard workers, and asked whether she could help them. He said that Caraluzzo and Nicoletti told her that it was serious, and if it went public, a lot of people would be hurt. He said LaBuda was sympathetic.
They told her that her brother, Wisniski, would be exposed for an alleged affair on county time. She asked them who else was on the list, and they told her. According to Lilholt, she asked if Briggs was on the list. They told her he was not.
One of the surprise witnesses was Rosemary Meyer, a court reporter, who was the official reporter for all of the testimony during the initial investigation. Lovett questioned her about her relationship to Robert Meyer, whom she recently married and who was approved this month in committee to become the next commissioner of the DPW.
This week, both attorneys will work on dates for the next hearings for Caraluzzo and Nicoletti.