‘Tunnelgate’ Claims From Ousted NJ Police Chief

     JERSEY CITY, N.J. (CN) – New Jersey was still suffering aftershocks from massive “bridgegate”-linked traffic jams when Jersey City’s mayor wanted to snarl driving in certain areas for political leverage, an ousted police chief claims in court.
     Robert Cowan says he had only just been made chief of the Jersey City Police Department in October 2013 when it became clear to him that Mayor Steve Fulop and his administration took every opportunity “to abuse authority and control the day-to-day operations of the JCPD for political and personal means.”
     Jersey City was mired in a legal dispute with the Port Authority at the time, Cowan says, and Fulop’s office allegedly made this issue a problem for the police force.
     Cowan’s complaint in Hudson County Superior Court describes a meeting on Nov. 4, 2013, in which the mayor’s chief of staff “issued an unlawful order to Cowan, instructing Cowan to establish a traffic stop (looking for seat belt violations) with the intent of shutting down traffic outside of the Holland Tunnel.”
     The directive came from Fulop “to obtain leverage against the Port Authority,” Cowan’s May 5 complaint states.
     Cowan says he “objected to these instructions as he reasonably believed they presented public safety concerns and might otherwise be unlawful.”
     Fulop’s office nevertheless called Cowan in a week later to discuss plans for a traffic stop meant to check trucks coming out of the Port Jersey Global Container Terminal, according to the complaint.
     When Cowan balked again, Fulop’s allegedly responded with, “this is not a negotiation, I am telling you to do this.”
     Cowan says the truck stops at the terminal occurred on Nov. 18 and Nov. 18 but that he shut the traffic stop down because he perceived that the back-up it caused was “hazardous and a misuse of police resources.”
     An “angered” Fulop allegedly called for another stop to harass the Port Authority, but Cowan says he told the mayor “that his instructions were unlawful.”
     “Fulop became visibly angry and reminded Cowan: ‘you serve at my pleasure’ threatening that Fulop could remove Cowan as chief if he so desired,” the complaint states.
     Fulop made good on that threat on June 25, 2013.
     Cowan’s retaliation action also describes how he allegedly bucked orders to transfer police officers who had had clashed with the mayor’s office and stall an investigation by Internal Affairs into a police officer arrested for drunken driving.
     Fulsop removed Cowan from office soon after when the mayor’s chief of staff was arrested for a DUI as well, and Cowan again refused to intervene, according to the complaint.
     The mayor’s office has called the lawsuit “fiction” and stands by its decision to demote Cowan. Calls to the mayor’s office were not immediately returned.
     The lawsuit turns the tables on previous allegations that Cowan had retaliated against police officers who had not supported the mayor.
     A number of lawsuits filed against him and the city from former and current police officers allege that Cowan met with a police officer in the middle of the night and harangued him for not supporting the mayor, and that he transferred other officers after they pulled over political operatives allegedly working for the mayor.
     Cowan’s attorney Adam Kleinfeldt says the actions against his client were illegal.
     “It doesn’t matter if you’re chief of police or a patrol officer, New Jersey law makes it illegal to demote or harass an employee if the employee refuses to comply with illegal or unethical demands from the employer,” Kleinfeldt said in an interview.
     Cowan’s complaint seeks punitive damages against the city, Fulop and the mayor’s public safety director, James Shea, alleging violations of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act.
     The complaint makes no mention of the bridgegate scandal that embroiled Gov. Chris Christie around the same time as the actions he describes.
     Bridgegate came to a head last year when emails surfaced in the press showing that the Republican governor’s top aides caused all but one entry lane to the George Washington Bridge to be closed for four days beginning on Sept. 9, 2013, causing massive traffic in Fort Lee, to punish that community’s Democratic mayor.

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