On March 25, 2022, Ocean County (NJ) discreetly agreed to pay $450,000 to one of its former detectives who claimed that he was fired for objecting to and reporting official misconduct within the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.
In his lawsuit, Steven Mecka, who was hired as a detective in 2004, claimed to have experienced adverse employment consequences, including being overlooked for promotions and transferred to less suitable units, as well as facing unjust disciplinary actions and ultimately being fired. He claimed that these issues arose primarily from conflicts with his superior, Vincent Petrecca, dating back to 2006.
When Charles Kuyl, who Mecka claimed is known to be close to Petrecca, became Chief of Detectives in 2007, Mecka’s assignments included investigating official misconduct by public officials in Ocean County. In September 2010, Petrecca allegedly directed Mecka to “go after” prominent political figures within the Republican Party without probable cause. Mecka said that he reported Petrecca’s order to Joseph Mitchell and Kuyl and that both of them told him that he was risking his career by resisting Petrecca’s demands. Throughout 2010, Mecka said he repeatedly asked Mitchell about the progress into his Internal Affairs investigation into Petrecca but received no clear response.
Mecka said that he was assigned to lead investigations into political corruption in Little Egg Harbor and uncovered various illegal activities. After reporting corruption in December 2010, Mecka claimed he was reassigned away from public corruption investigations to the Trial/Grand Jury Unit and then to the Domestic Violence Unit. Mecka said that these were desirable units, known internally as punishment assignments.
Shortly after joining the Domestic Violence Unit, Mecka said he had a dispute with Vincent Frulio over what he said was Frulio’s “personal relationship with a case that the OCPO was prosecuting.” This dispute, he said, immediately preceded his transfer to the Domestic Violence/Weapon Return Unit.
In 2012, Mecka said that Frulio told members of his unit to continue signing Sergeant Abrams in as if he was working when he was in fact absent due to medical issues. Frulio announced “if anyone has a problem with this, they’ll answer to me and the Chief” [Defendant Kuyl],” according to the lawsuit. When Mecka reported this, Kuyl allegedly asked him “Why do you want to do this [report the alleged cover-up of Abrams’ absences]. It will destroy our office.”
In 2013, Joseph Coronato became the new Ocean County Prosecutor. Mecka said Kuyl instructed him to work with the FBI regarding corruption in Red Bank. He said that Chief of Detectives Glenn Miller later told him that his FBI duties were part time and that he was still primarily working with the Domestic Violence/Weapon Return Unit. While working with the FBI, Mecka said that he “submitted detailed, written reports about the misconduct and criminal activity in the [prosecutor’s office], and about official misconduct in various county and municipal offices which he had discovered in the past years.”
During September 2013, Mecka said that a domestic violence complaint was lodged against Jackson Police Deputy Chief Matthew Kunz which resulted in his weapons being confiscated. Mecka alleged that “Mitchell and Petrecca ordered Sgt. Nahrwood to return Chief Kunz’s guns to him, without notice to the victim, and prior to any hearing.” Mecka said that his objections to this process caused Frulio, Miller and senior staff attorney John Corson, Jr. to become “furious about his objections and threatened [him] with a charge of insubordination.”
Mecka said that his repeated attempts to formally report these issues, even to higher authorities, were met with resistance, superficial investigations, or outright refusal. Mecka claimed that after insisting that his complaints against Petrecca and others be forwarded to the Division of Criminal Justice in Trenton, there was a single interview by the Division during which none of his evidential documents were accepted. Although he claimed he was promised a second, long interview, he said that no second interview was every scheduled. Mecka claimed that Coronato, Corson and Miller later told him that the matter was “fully investigated” and resulted in the charges being not sustained.
Mecka claimed his situation worsened with false accusations and disciplinary charges against him in 2015, following an incident during which he said he was falsely accused in 2015 of being overly aggressive during a training exercise and injurying Sergeant Steinhauser. Mecka claimed, however, that Steinhauser actually assaulted him. He claimed that he was aware at that time how another detective, Leah Kapler, was assaulted and permanently injured after having had registered complaints against Petrecca.
Mecka alleged that the April 15, 2013 incident led to a disciplinary charges that resulted in him being terminated on June 30, 2016.
The settlement calls for Ocean County to pay Mecka $191,983.59 in pay for the period beginning July 1, 2016 and ending July 1, 2018 plus contribute $21,287.15 toward Mecka’s pension. The settlement also calls for the county “to pay to the Bankruptcy Trustee the sum of $150,000 representing attorney fees in this matter incurred on behalf of Mecka” as well as $86,729.26 to the Trustee “for emotional distress.” Finally, the county agreed that Mecka can retire in good standing effective July 1, 2018. In sum, the settlement payments total $450,000.
The case is captioned Mecka v. Joseph Coronato, Glenn Miller, et al, Docket No. MON-L-1740-16 and Mecka’s attorney was George J. Cotz of Ramsey. The civil lawsuit and settlement order are in a combined PDF file on-line here.
The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, under which the plaintiff agreed that the settlement and its terms and amounts be kept confidential. Fortunately, however, confidentiality clauses do not trump the public’s right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.
None of Mecka’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $450,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Kunz, Ocean County, the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office or any of its employees and officials. All that is known for sure is that Ocean County or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Mecka $450,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.