Cape Airport Tech Village

A whistleblower lawsuit was reinstated by an Appellate Court panel Wednesday against Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton. In this file photo, Thornton speaks to a gathering at the Cape May Airport to celebrate the beginning of a new business expansion at the airport. A ground breaking ceremony took place at the Cape May Airport Wednesday May 15, 2019, to mark the beginning of a new economic development project at the airport facility in Lower Township. Tech Village will be a 20,000 sq ft complex and is part of an investment in technological business expansion in Cape May County. (Dale Gerhard)

A whistleblower lawsuit against Cape May County and Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton was reinstated Wednesday by an appellate court.

Former county purchasing agent Kim Allen alleged Thornton retaliated against her in 2014 by not renewing her contract, after she reported what she believed to be illegal actions taken by his wife and stepson in their county jobs.

A lower court had dismissed the suit, and a three-judge panel reversed that decision in a 2-1 vote and remanded it for further proceedings.

Thornton is running for reelection this year with Freeholder E. Marie Hayes, a one-time ally whom he and the other freeholders on the all-Republican board recently voted to censure.

Hayes is alleged to have engaged in behavior involving conflict of interest and retaliation to help her son, who is a county employee.

A dissent by one of the judges on the appellate panel “gives Cape May County the right to appeal this matter to the New Jersey Supreme Court, and that right will be aggressively pursued,” said county attorney Russell Lichtenstein. “We are overwhelmingly confident that this spurious claim will ultimately be dismissed and will no longer be a burden on the taxpayers of Cape May County.”

If the Supreme Court agrees the case should be reinstated, it will go back to Superior Court for trial, said Allen’s attorney, Sebastian B. Ionno.

The whole process is likely to take years, with the Supreme Court hearing it in about 18 months, Ionno estimated.

Allen alleged in her suit that she engaged in protected behavior before not being reappointed by reporting alleged illegal behavior regarding county contracts or bids by County Counsel and Human Resources Director Jeffrey Lindsay, who is Thornton’s stepson, and county nursing home Administrator Linda Thornton, who is Thornton’s wife.

Allen was provisionally named county purchasing agent in 2006, appointed to purchasing agent in 2008 after obtaining certification, and reappointed three years later, according to the appellate decision.

She was not reappointed in 2014, after Thornton read a law-firm report that included information about Allen’s whistleblowing. But Thornton denied noticing who had made the allegations, according to the decision.

The job of purchasing agent is a political appointment and the county had the right not to renew for poor performance, or if it had another political appointment in mind, Ionno said.

But if the motivating factor is whistleblowing, the employee’s job is protected, Ionno said.

Contact: 609-272-7219 Twitter @MichelleBPost

Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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