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In the Matter of

July 22, 2011

IN THE MATTER OF CRAIG COUGHLIN, BOROUGH OF PARK RIDGE POLICE DEPARTMENT.


On appeal from the Civil Service Commission, Docket No. 2010-298.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted June 22, 2011

Before Judges A. A. Rodriguez and Reisner.

Craig Coughlin, a former captain of the Park Ridge Borough Police Department (Department), appeals from the June 24, 2010 final administrative action of the Civil Service Commission, adopting the findings and conclusion of Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Imre Karaszegi, Jr., who upheld the Department's termination of Coughlin. We affirm.

The ALJ made the following factual findings. In October 2008, Lieutenant Joseph Rampolla of the Department was coordinating an upgrade of the Department's software. As he attempted to save a screen shot of the information in Coughlin's office computer, which is listed in the network file server, he found a large amount of sexually explicit images. Rampolla reported this discovery to the Chief of Police. The hard drive of Coughlin's office computer was presented to the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office Computer Crime Unit for further analysis. That Unit issued a computer forensic analysis report, which concluded that "several visits to adult oriented websites were performed by the user of this computer. These visits include adult dating sites as well as image viewing." The report listed 139 visits to various websites. Rampolla's investigation report noted that the accessed image dates and web history showed a "total of twenty-four separate dates." Rampolla noted that Coughlin was on duty during twenty-three of those dates. Rampolla testified that "hundreds of graphic pornographic images" were on Coughlin's hard drive.

As a part of an administrative investigation, Rampolla interviewed Coughlin with his attorney present. When Coughlin was asked if he visited pornographic websites at his work computer, Coughlin responded "Yes" and also admitted that several of the websites required a paid membership. In addition, to access Coughlin's computer required entry of his user name and password.

Because pornographic images were found in Coughlin's work computer, the Department served him with a preliminary notice of disciplinary action. The preliminary notice charged Coughlin with violations of the Department rules and regulations, and the New Jersey Civil Service Commission Administrative Code Title 4A.

After Officer Robert M. Czech conducted a hearing, he issued a decision concluding that Coughlin had violated a number of rules and regulations including conduct unbecoming a public employee, insubordination, prohibited activity while on duty, misuse of public property, failure to insure compliance with Department standard operating guidelines and other significant cause. The hearing officer recommended termination. The Department accepted the decision and recommendations of the hearing officer, and issued a final notice of disciplinary action removing Coughlin from employment effective January 28, 2009.

Coughlin appealed. The matter was forwarded to the Office of Administrative Law as a contested case. ALJ Karaszegi found that:

[The Borough's Police Department] has proven, by a preponderance of the competent, credible evidence, the charges of insubordination, conduct unbecoming a public employee, and has given other sufficient cause for disciplinary action, such as failure to conduct himself in an appropriate manner, prohibited activity, responsibilities of superior officers, enforcement of rules and regulations.

ALJ Karaszegi also found that the Department "has met its burden of proving by a preponderance of the credible evidence, the charge of misuse of public property." He recommended removal from employment as the appropriate discipline.

Coughlin filed exceptions to ALJ's initial decision. The Civil Service Commission adopted the findings and conclusion of the ALJ.

On appeal, Coughlin challenges the sanctions imposed and a decision by the ALJ to exclude testimony during an evidentiary hearing. He argues that the discipline imposed on him and "specifically termination from employment, is so disproportionate to the underlying infraction as to render the ...


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