Sunday, September 16, 2007

Corruption - Ledger - Former Hackett aide alleges corruption, harassment

Published in the Star Ledger, Sunday, September 16, 2007

Former Hackett staffer files sexual harassment lawsuit
Matter referred to AG's office earlier by Essex County prosecutor

Star-Ledger Staff

A former executive secretary of Orange Mayor Mims Hackett Jr. claims she was sexually harassed by the mayor and wrongfully terminated after rebuffing his advances and complaining about campaign violations, theft and municipal corruption.

Laverne M. Ballard, Hackett's secretary from Sept. 21, 2004, until July 21, 2006, filed a civil lawsuit on Thursday in Superior Court in Newark.

In a 28-page complaint, Ballard also alleged Hackett and some current and former council members illegally accepted reimbursements for expenses to which they were not entitled, and conspired to double bill the city for the some expenses and hand-write phony receipts, and forced her to commit fraud by submitting the bills.

The suit comes one week after Hackett was arrested in a federal sting on charges of accepting bribes in exchange for help securing public contracts. He was among 11 public officials arrested Sept. 6 after an 18-month federal undercover investigation.

"After being fired for (her) refusal to participate in criminal activity in the mayor's office, she feels vindicated after learning that Hackett was indicted on bribery and political corruption charges," said Ronald L. Washington, Ballard's husband and attorney.

The couple now live in Atlanta.

Orange city attorney Marvin Braker and Orange business administrator Jewel Thompson-Chin rebuffed Ballard's claims as being political motivated and part of a demand that she previously made to the city, in which she sought $250,000 in cash and her $44,000-a-year job back.

"It's shameful when people revel and rejoice in the misfortune of others," said Braker, referring to Ballard filing her lawsuit after Hackett was arrested.

In the federal corruption case, Hackett has pleaded innocent to the charges that he was taped accepting a $5,000 cash bribe, from an undercover agent, and that he agreed to accept $25,000 more when he got a majority of the Orange City Council to endorse an insurance deal he personally helped broker.

"Sometimes I think people feel the need to engage in this piling-on sort of game, if you will, when they think someone is down," Braker said.

Hackett, Ballard's lawsuit contends, used to make "unwelcome" comments to her about the fit of her skirt and other remarks that "were increasingly graphic, inappropriate, disrespectful and loaded with sexual references," and Hackett insisted, on one occasion, that she get very close to him while he worked at his city hall office desk.

In early December 2004, the suit also contended, Ballard and others accompanied Hackett to a National League of Cities convention in Indianapolis, where Hackett gave her his hotel key-card, made lewd comments to her over dinner and got mad at her when she refused to visit him one evening.

On July 10, 2006, the suit said, Ballard was summoned to Thompson-Chin's office and was told her job performance was not up to the mayor's standards, and she received a letter saying she would be terminated, effective July 21.

Ballard responded by telling Thompson-Chin that the matter appeared to be linked to the "mayor's history of sexual harassment and law-breaking."

Thompson-Chin said in an interview Friday that Ballard was terminated for "poor performance," nothing more, nothing less.

"It was not a sudden action," Thompson-Chin said. "It occurred over a period of several months, when there were counseling meetings with her. Essentially, her performance never improved to the standard he (Hackett) would have liked for a key employee in his office."

Thompson-Chin, who handled Ballard's termination, said her July meeting with Ballard was the first time the employee mentioned sexual harassment.

"During the entire time of her employment, we don't have anything on record from her," Thompson-Chin said. "Within a couple of days after her termination, she sent a letter to the city attorney, demanding $250,000 and her job back."

Braker said he personally made "the decision that we were not going to pay her one penny."

As for all of Ballard's allegations of criminal wrongdoing, Braker declined comment, saying they are "going to be vigorously defended."

As of late Friday, Orange City Hall had not been served a copy of Ballard's civil lawsuit. Braker said he learned about the litigation only when contacted by The Star-Ledger.

The allegations of wrongdoing Ballard makes in her lawsuit mirror the ones Ballard outlined in a May 5, 2007, letter that she sent to Essex County Prosecutor Paula Dow.

Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for Dow, said the prosecutor and her staff reviewed those complaints, felt they warranted a further probe, and referred the matter to the state Attorney General's Office in Trenton for review.

Ballard's is not the first sexual harassment lawsuit to be filed against Hackett.

Marilyn Smith, the former head of Orange's Office of Older Adults, made an Oct. 17, 1994, sexual harassment claim against Hackett. The matter was settled about three years later, out of court, for an estimated $95,000, and with the city not accepting any liability of guilt.

Kevin C. Dilworth may be reached at or (973) 392-4143

Online story here. Archived here.

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About Me

Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.