On appeal from the Civil Service Commission, Docket No. 2009-1484.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 24, 2011
Before Judges Ashrafi and Fasciale.
This case involves disciplinary charges against a police officer, Steven Jones, who appeals from a July 23, 2010 final decision of the Civil Service Commission (the Commission) adopting the findings of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) that Jones engaged in conduct unbecoming an officer and violated department rules. City of Millville Police Department (MPD) cross-appeals from the Commission's imposition of a ninety-day suspension as reduced by the ALJ from a six-month suspension. We affirm on all issues.
The charges that MPD filed are based on Jones' participation in fraudulent reimbursement claims for meals consumed during out-of-state police training seminars and his untruthful statements during an internal affairs investigation into the matter.
From October 3 to 6, 2005, Jones attended a seminar for which he later sought reimbursement for meal expenses. He provided receipts to Sherry Trout, an administrative secretary, in accordance with MPD's reimbursement policy.*fn1 Ten of the receipts were identical in appearance except for numbering, and none included details regarding the restaurants or meals. Trout prepared a voucher and signed Jones' name at the direction of the police chief, who along with the director of public safety approved the voucher. Jones then received a check for his expenses.
From June 26 to 30, 2006, Jones attended another seminar and sought reimbursement for meal expenses. Jones again submitted receipts, two of which were identical in form and "strikingly similar to those previously submitted in October 2005." Again, Trout prepared a voucher and signed Jones' name at the direction of the police chief, and again the chief and director of public safety approved the voucher and Jones received a check.
From September 25 to 28, 2006, Jones attended a third seminar and sought reimbursement for meals in accordance with MPD's policy. He submitted various receipts that were identical in form and close in number. Trout prepared a voucher and signed Jones' name, and the chief approved the reimbursement.
On March 19, 2008, MPD served Jones with a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action, alleging: misconduct, N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147; conduct unbecoming a police officer; incompetency, inefficiency or failure to perform duties, N.J.A.C. 4A:2-2.3(a)(1); conduct unbecoming a public employee, N.J.A.C. 4A:2-2.3(a)(6); and other sufficient cause, N.J.A.C. 4A:2-2.3(a)(11), including violations of the MPD's rules and regulations.
On November 28, 2007, Frank Nolan, an investigator with the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office, interviewed Jones regarding the receipts he submitted for reimbursement, and other non-related matters. Thereafter, Jones also discussed the investigation with Nolan and the Prosecutor's Office in a telephone call. On March 13, 2008, Frank Guaracini, III, interviewed Jones as part of an internal affairs investigation into the MPD regarding submission of illegitimate receipts for reimbursement for expenses incurred at seminars.
On July 9, 2008, a departmental hearing was held. MPD met its burden of proof concerning the statutory charges, and Jones received a six-month suspension commencing March 18, 2008 and ending September 19, 2008. MPD agreed to merge the common law charges. Jones appealed to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL).
Administrative Law Judge William Todd Miller conducted a hearing on two days. MPD called two witnesses: Trout and Nolan. On October 22, 2009, Trout admitted that she was not aware of any facts indicating that Jones incurred the claimed expenses. She testified that based on her experience processing vouchers for reimbursement, the expenses Jones claimed were typically expected. Trout agreed that the expenses were consistent with other receipts she received and with MPD's reimbursement policy.
At the close of MPD's case, Jones moved to dismiss the disciplinary charges pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147, which sets a forty-five day statute of limitations for bringing disciplinary charges on certain grounds. On March 9, 2010, the ALJ denied the motion and issued a written opinion finding no violation of the statute. On April 21, 2010, the proceeding continued with Jones ...