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Bergen County sheriff’s officer sues current, former freeholder

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A Bergen County Sheriff’s officer alleges that Freeholder Maura DeNicola and former freeholder Robert Hermansen violated his free-speech rights by bringing an internal affairs complaint against him, in a lawsuit filed in Hackensack.

Officer Matthew Ryan says DeNicola and Hermansen pursued the complaint as retaliation for his support of both Sheriff Michael Saudino and a proposal to fold the county Police Department into the sheriff’s office.

Hermansen, however, told CLIFFVIEW PILOT last night that he “never filed anything against Mr. Ryan” despite a confrontation one night this past January in which the officer “went berserk.”

DeNicola hasn’t returned a request for comment.

Ryan became a Bergen County Sheriff’s corrections officer in May 2002 and a sheriff’s officer eight years later. He’s been actively involved in recent years in PBA Local #134 “and Bergen County politics as a whole,” according to his suit.

He frequents union meetings, county government meetings and political events, and “outwardly supports” Saudino, who was re-elected to a second term last month, a day after Ryan filed the complaint in Superior Court.

The suit describes  DeNicola and Hermansen as “political allies [who] voted together while sitting on the Board of Freeholders.”

Although some freeholders supported a proposal last year to fold the county police department into the sheriff’s office, DeNicola and Hermansen joined county Executive Kathleen Donovan in opposing the move.

Saudino favored it, as did Ryan.

His suit says Ryan “outwardly expressed his opposition to Hermansen,” who was running for re-election at the time. That opposition included a radio ad that Ryan produced.

Hermansen eventually was voted off the board.

This past January, the suit says, he and Ryan got into an argument over the radio ad at a beefsteak fundraiser.

Hermansen “took an aggressive step” towards Ryan, and Hermansen’s wife “grabbed hold of [her husband] to hold him in place,” the suit alleges.

Someone else also stepped between them, and the incident ended, it says.

Hermansen told CLIFFVIEW PILOT that “a drunk Mr. Ryan along with another Sheriff’s officer started screaming at myself and my wife as I left a fundraiser for Mike Saudino” the night of the confrontation.

“I walked over to him and told him this was not the time nor place for an exchange especially with the state he was in,” Hermansen said in an inbox message last night.

“[Ryan’s] fellow officer, [who] I believe was one of the union reps [t]ried restraining him. He kept going that he was glad he did what he did to get rid of me. I told him I was ve[r]y happy being home with my kids. I told him funny how you are now backing Mike so strongly knowing how strongly he supported [former Sheriff] Leo [McGuire] in the last race.

“He went berserk,” Hermansen said.

“My wife told me to ignore him as he was drunk and let’s go home,” he added. “That is what I did.

“On the way out a number of people apologized to me for his actions. I told them alcohol has a strange way of doing things to you.”

Hermansen said he “left and never thought another second about him” until receiving CLIFFVIEW PILOT ’s inquiry yesterday about Ryan’s lawsuit.

That same night, Ryan says, he ran into DeNicola at the dinner. They had a cordial chat, his complaint says, adding that she had introduced herself to him at another political event five months earlier and later saw him at other fundraisers and board meetings.

At some point during the conversation,” it says, a fellow sheriff’s officer interrupted and, “to [Ryan’s] surprise,” shouted: “Stop talking to [DeNicola]!”

Ryan said he screamed back in an attempt to quiet the officer.

Bergen County Police Chief Brian Higgins presented a different version of events from that night.

In a September letter to his boss, County Executive Kathleen Donovan, Higgins said Ryan was guilty of “creating a scene” at the January beefsteak dinner by shouting at DeNicola in “an aggressive nature,” to the point that the other sheriff’s officer intervened and told him to “calm down.”

Higgins said Ryan continued shouting, eventually saying he hoped Donovan would show up so that he could “rip her head off and send her out of here with her tail between her legs.”

Higgins said Ryan also told DeNicola that he “knows where she lives.” This was troubling, he said, because two weeks earlier she caught someone in a white pickup truck taking photos of her house.

Higgins, citing what he called “a troubling pattern of behavior” by sheriff’s officers, said DeNicola told Saudino about Ryan but that he dismissed her claims while calling the officer “harmless.”

A few weeks after the incident, Ryan’s suit says, he received an Internal Affairs memo telling him to steer clear of all freeholders during what was an internal investigation.

At the time, it says, he was “completely unaware that an Internal Affairs complaint had been filed against him.”

During the interviews that followed, Ryan said, he “perceived the accusations against him to be worse and worse.”

There was an insinuation that he stalked DeNicola and another that he “was an alcoholic and had anger problems,” which were “patently false,” he says in the suit.

Ryan said he offered to submit to a psychological session, which he later attended.

In May 2013, the two primary complaints against him were dismissed and two lesser complaints of cursing were upheld, his suit says.

DeNicola and Hermansen “filed this baseless Internal Affairs complaint against [Ryan] in retaliation for his political speech,” the lawsuit alleges.

As a result, Ryan says, he has “suffered economic, emotional and psychological damages” in an amount that he asked be determined by a jury.

DeNicola was involved in a traffic stop that ignited another feud.

The sheriff’s officer who made the Aug. 14 stop said he felt “distracted and intimidated” by two BCPD officers who showed up, although a 22-minute dashboard camera video provided by Higgins has no audio beyond mostly aimless chatter between Sheriff’s Officer Vincent Surace and his officers.

DeNicola said she was targeted because of her opposition to the merger proposal.

An internal affairs review by Saudino’s officer found that the stop wasn’t politically motivated and that Surace, as he said in his original report, pulled DeNicola over on Route 208 after a freeholder meeting that night because she was driving too slowly in the passing lane ( SEE: Bergen sheriff’s officer claims being ‘distracted, intimidated’ by county police after stopping freeholder ).

During the stop, Surace said he discovered that the registration for her husband’s car had expired. The vehicle was eventually towed.

DeNicola said she requested a summons for the expired registration but didn’t receive one. “[P]olitical interference” is “influencing county law enforcement,” she said.

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