VINELAND – The City Council is asking a state court to bar Mayor Ruben Bermudez from all litigation and administrative actions involving former police officer Gamaliel “Gami” Cruz’s attempt to get back his job.
The hefty, bluntly worded lawsuit filed on Oct. 1 in Cumberland County Superior Court in Bridgeton argues the mayor’s longstanding friendship with Cruz should prohibit him from making any decisions about the disgraced ex-cop’s future with the city.
The suit, filed on behalf of the council, names the first-term mayor and the longtime narcotics detective as defendants.
The council also wants a court order declaring void any past actions by Bermudez that benefits the fired officer. The council also proposes that the city business administrator be assigned to make any decisions on administrative matters concerning Cruz.
“The Mayor’s intervening actions in connection with the administrative proceedings involving Gamaliel Cruz’s appeal of the final disciplinary charges against him were impaired by a prohibited conflict of interest and should be deemed void as a matter of law,” the suit states.
In addition, the council is accusing the mayor of violating New Jersey’s Local Government Ethics Law by dismissing administrative charges against Cruz to allow him to be re-hired. The lawsuit uses the phrase “personal friend” 19 times to describe Bermudez’s relationship with Cruz.
The suit states: “Further, the Mayor’s actions were arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable because they were undertaken without regard to the public safety interests of the City and its citizens, and were clouded by a personal bias in violation of State ethics law which precludes public officials from acting in an official capacity on behalf of a private interest. Mayor Bermudez should have recused himself from having any involvement in the Cruz matter.”
Council President Anthony Fanucci signed off on the lawsuit. He declined immediate comment on Monday, saying he would leave initial remarks to council attorney William Harla.
The mayor could not be reached for comment late Monday.
Cruz is represented by attorney Stuart Alterman, who could not be reached late Monday. His office is aware of the suit.
The city first suspended Cruz in 2011. It fired him in May 2012. Those steps followed investigations by the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office and city police into a drug case Cruz worked on with other officers.
The investigations determined that Cruz, a detective, had lied to an unidentified state Superior Court judge in order to obtain a search warrant in that drug case. That refers to an application for a warrant made by phone on August 3, 2010.
As a result, the county Prosecutor’s Office eventually was forced to dismiss 39 cases in which Cruz played a significant investigatory role because the truthfulness of his testimony was undermined.
The Prosecutor’s Office also concluded that Cruz could never again be called as a witness in court because of his conduct, and that it would have to advise defense attorneys of that fact in any future cases.
The office officially advised the city of those facts in November 2010. Based on that, city officials have said that Cruz can never work a regular police assignment.
As a side effect, the suit notes, the city is defending itself in federal court against about 28 civil rights lawsuits brought by individuals claiming Cruz’s actions led to violations of their rights.
The firing took place under Mayor Robert Romano, himself a former police lieutenant. Romano still stands by the firing decision.
Bermudez was not an elected city official at the time of the firing, although he says he personally lobbied Romano at the time for Cruz to be returned to duty.
On May 21 of this year, Bermudez ordered the departmental charges be dismissed and told Cruz he could return to work by July 15. Cruz has not returned to work, though.
Police Chief Timothy Codispoti opposed Cruz’s return, and he has stated that he clearly advised Bermudez not to accept his return.
The lawsuit alleges that, if Cruz were returned, it would have an “adverse impact upon the morale and efficiency of the police department and destroy public respect for the police officers and confidence in the operation of the police department.”
Further, it states, the county Prosecutor’s Office would be impaired.
Harla is representing the council in the action rather than city Solicitor Richard Tonetta or one of two assistant city solicitors.
The lawsuit relies in part on statements from the mayor himself at a June 9, 2014 news conference in his office.
At that event, the mayor effusively praised Cruz, defended his attempt to re-instate him and discussed their long relationship. The mayor also answered numerous questions about his decision-making process on Cruz.
At least one recording of that news conference was given to the county Prosecutor’s Office, which also on the same day served on Bermudez a subpoena.
Cruz has a pending lawsuit against the city in state court to get his job back. That action was filed in June. Harla also represents the council in that action, which remains active but postponed until early December.
The ex-cop already was pursuing an appeal in state administrative law court of his firing. He withdrew that appeal, prior to its conclusion, after the mayor dismissed the disciplinary charges.
The new lawsuit will be handled in Gloucester County Superior Court to avoid any conflicts of interest, as have other legal battles between the mayor and the council over the last two years.
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AT A GLANCE
Vineland City Council’s lawsuit against Mayor Ruben Bermudez and former city police officer Gamaliel “Gami” Cruz seeks several remedies in the case. The suit asks the court for nine specific actions:
• Prevent Bermudez from any further action involving Cruz’s disciplinary charges.
• Prevent Bermudez from attempting to reinstate Cruz to the police department.
• Reinstate charges against Cruz.
• Prevent Bermudez from being involved in the administrative appeal process for Cruz, and appoint the city’s business administrator to act in the mayor’s place.
• Declare invalid the mayor’s amendment of Cruz’s Final Notice of Disciplinary Action.
• Declare unconstitutional the mayor’s amendment of Cruz’s Final Notice of Disciplinary Action.
• Declare the mayor’s amendment of Cruz’s Final Notice of Disciplinary Action to be arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.
• Prevent Cruz from being reinstated to the police department until the case is settled.
• Award attorney fees, lawsuit costs and other relief to the council.