Thursday, November 13, 2014

Margate settles Clerk's Whistleblower suit: Clerk to retire and get $284,000, with lawyer to get $50,000.

On November 6, 2014, the City of Margate (Atlantic County) agreed to pay $334,000 to its longtime municipal clerk and his lawyer to settle a whistleblower suit he filed against the City after he was allegedly retaliated against for reporting illegal conduct by a Margate elected official.

In his suit, Thomas Hiltner, who has worked for the City since 1986, said that in 2011, he and City Chief Financial Officer Lisa McLaughlin compared proposals from two accounting firms--Bowman & Company and Ford Scott Accountants--and recommended the Bowman firm due in part to that firm being 7% less expensive than Ford Scott.  Hiltner claimed that he learned in August 2011 that Commissioner Brenda Taube opposed the recommendation based on the Ford Scott Accounting firm's alleged "help and assistance 'to the Commissioner's ticket' throughout her campaign."

Hiltner claimed that he reported Taube's position to his immediate supervisor as well as to the police because he believed that "the award of a public contract based upon a vendor currying favor with a candidate was the precise type of "contribution' outlawed by New Jersey law."  Hiltner also alleged that in his subsequent conversation with Mayor Michael Becker, Becker "confessed and responded that regardless of the request for proposal process, Ford Scott was getting the contract."

According to the lawsuit, Hiltner's reporting of Taube precipitated "the most aggressive and continuous campaign of retaliatory action [he] has ever experienced in over a quarter of a century of public service" at the hands of Taube and Becker.  Among the retaliatory acts, Hiltner claimed that he was stripped of his duty as beach badge sales supervisor and the $5,000 stipend that went with it.  Also, Hiltner alleged that City officials "manufactured verba1 and written reprimands against [him], allegations of [his] violation of the City's vacation and sick time policy [and] allegations of [his] failure to follow the Family Medical Leave Act policy."

The case is captioned Hiltner v. Margate, Docket No. ATL-L-3105-12 and Hiltner's attorney was Louis M. Barbone of Atlantic City.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Hiltner's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $334,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Margate or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Margate or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Hiltner $334,000 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.