LOWER TOWNSHIP - The Cape May County Prosecutor's Office is investigating possible corruption at the township Municipal Utilities Authority, and the probe led to picketing at the Bayshore Road facility on Wednesday.
More than 60 people picketed outside as the authority's Board of Commissioners arrived Wednesday evening for its regular monthly meeting. Many of the protesters carried signs critical of Authority Executive Director Matthew Ecker.
The protesters allege Ecker has threatened to fire, and even verbally and physically assaulted, one employee, who cooperated with Cape May County investigators.
"Ecker must go. Fire the Liar," read one sign.
"Outsource Ecker, Not the Whistleblowers," read another.
Jack Porter, an LTMUA laborer who was fired one year ago and went to the Prosecutor's Office, sparking the investigation, hung a sheet on his truck that read: "Matt Eckercare, Worse than Obamacare."
"I called the Prosecutor's Office," said Porter, who alleges misuse of authority funds and kickbacks on projects involving new water pipelines and solar panels.
Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor said his office refuses to "deny or confirm any investigation is ongoing."
Ecker, however, confirmed the Prosecutor's Office has been gathering files from the authority.
"We have provided quite a few documents to the Cape May County Prosecutor's Office," Ecker said.
Authority Chairman Nels Johnson confirmed that authority workers have been interviewed by county investigators.
"We were issued subpoenas, mostly for fact-finding information. There is some alleged stuff in there that we were giving out free water hookups and there were some sweetheart contract deals. There is zero merit to them," Johnson said.
Michelle Douglass, a Northfield attorney representing five workers she claims are whistle-blowers unfairly targeted by Ecker for cooperating with the county, said there are many more allegations beyond what Johnson listed. Douglass said she was limited in what she could reveal, but noted all five of her clients have talked to county investigators. Douglass said she was planning to file a civil lawsuit on behalf of workers Jesse Matsinger, Adam Witkowsky, Don Embs, Bill Dunn and Jania Bailey.
"I have five clients targeted by the executive director, and one was physically assaulted," Douglass said.
Douglass said actions included writing workers up on bogus charges, denying overtime work, suspending one without pay and firing another.
"I got a notice of disciplinary action today with termination effective Oct. 18. I'm the purchasing agent. They figure I must have blown the whistle on purchasing that was done," said Bailey.
Matsinger claims he was assaulted by Ecker, and at the commission meeting he asked the board to fire the executive director. Douglass gave the board an audio tape that allegedly has Ecker threatening Matsinger.
"I've had medical conditions ever since. I shake at night. No one would act like this if they didn't have something to hide," Matsinger said.
Ecker, after the meeting, said he had no comment on Matsinger's charges other than to say there have been some labor problems and sometimes a "strained relationship with management is inevitable."
"I'm proud of the work I've accomplished here and will continue to do good work. I think I have the support of the majority of the board," Ecker said.
Several board members, however, complained at the meeting. Commissioner Pete Bitting said he recently found out his keys to the facility no longer work. He said Ecker told him under a new policy he can't talk to employees anymore.
"Twelve years on the board. I'm the treasurer and sign the checks. I came in and the gates were locked. Why can't I talk to workers? I'm a board member. I have a right to," Bitting said.
On the key issue, Ecker said he is complying with an order from the Prosecutor's Office.
Bitting argued that the board is in charge of firing people and not management. He made a motion to table all firing until the county investigation is concluded. Johnson said it was not on the agenda and no vote was taken.
Some on the board also denied knowing about a plan to privatize the public utility, which supplies water and sewer services. After the meeting Ecker said the board is considering it. Johnson said it will be a board decision.
Douglass asked whether the board has a policy to protect whistle blowers participating in a criminal investigation. She never got an answer.
"If not, you're inviting civil litigation," Douglass said.
Matsinger said the board has a policy against "threatening and bullying."
Johnson noted that Matsinger has filed a grievance that will be heard. He said there has been no retaliation against employees, and the authority has fully cooperated with the Prosecutor's Office. At a meeting when new sewer and water budgets were introduced, both without rate increases, Johnson said the board has more important things to do than waste ratepayer's money "on frivolous charges."
"I welcome an investigation. It's all going to come out in the wash in the next couple months," Johnson said.
Contact Richard Degener: