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CHIEF WON COUNCIL PRAISE WHILE SHIELDING GIRLFRIEND

Chief Darren McConnell with then-Mayor Pasquale Menna in December, 2014. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By BRIAN DONOHUE

When Red Bank’s business administrator Ziad Shehady resigned in May 2021, it was a time of political chaos. The members of a bitterly fractious borough council found almost nothing they could agree on. 

But over the next year, there was one matter on which they all seemed to sing in harmony: until a permanent administrator was hired, the town was in good hands. 

Police Chief Darren McConnell, appointed interim BA after Shehady’s departure, all seemed to agree, was doing a faultless job running the town. In hindsight, the New Jersey Attorney General now says, they were wrong.

Chief Darren McConnell and Patrolwoman Kristin Altimari at the library last November. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

“We have the luxury of having somebody in the position right now who is beyond competent and doing a stellar job,’’ current council member and then-police commissioner Kate Triggiano said during a September, 2021 council meeting.

Even members of the opposing, then-majority faction loudly pushing for a quicker hire of a permanent administrator praised McConnell’s performance. In May 2022, then-Councilman Ed Zipprich praised the “really really good job” he was doing; Councilman Michael Ballard said a new hire was needed on to ease his workload “despite the job Darren is doing.”

What they either didn’t know or didn’t mention publicly was the pattern of wrongdoing the state attorney general now says McConnell had been engaged in for five years. 

The findings, laid bare in a report released by the AG’s Special Investigations Unit earlier this month, included violations of borough conflict-of-interest policies for McConnell’s failure to disclose his romantic relationship with a patrolwoman, Kristin Altimari.

The AG says McConnell also squelched multiple internal affairs investigations against Altimari – for an improper strip search, violating time-off policy and other infractions. 

In a complaint filed with the AG in November, 2022, Policeman’s Benevolent Association Local 39 alleged McConnell failed to recuse himself in “approximately 14” internal affairs matters involving Altimari between 2014 and 2021.

After an investigation, the AG’s report recommended that McConnell be fired and not allowed to work for the town in any capacity. He was placed on administrative leave last month, by Jim Gant, his successor as administrator.

“The result of his actions have clearly been detrimental to the operations and the morale of the Red Bank Police Department while beneficial to himself,” the AG’s report states. 

McConnell has declined to comment on the AG’s report. His attorney last week issued a statement saying “when all the evidence is presented, Chief McConnell will be vindicated of all allegations set forth.” The borough council, meanwhile, has notified McConnell of its “intention to discipline” him, and hired retired New Jersey Superior Court Judge Deborah Gramiccioni to preside over a closed hearing.

Questions remain, however, over enforcement of the town’s conflict-of-interest policies, including making sure McConnell recused himself from investigations into complaints against Altimari. McConnell and Altimari were married last summer.

In his interviews with investigators, McConnell said he “may have told” Triggiano or former Mayor Pasquale Menna about his conflict of interest, but “wasn’t able to confidently say that he made any notification to anyone else at all,” according to the AG’s report.

Triggiano served as police commissioner from the day she joined the council in 2019, heading the Public Safety committee then charged with oversight of the police department.

Asked what she knew and when, Triggiano replied in an email to redbankgreen “the borough did not learn of the substance of the Attorney General’s Offices conclusions until they were provide to the Borough Manager on Feb. 28, 2024.”

She continued:

“I can assure you that I along with the rest of the governing body take all allegations of wrongful conduct seriously. The Council will work to ensure that the Chief is provided with a fair hearing to which he is entitled by law.  Our attorneys are moving forward in cooperation with the Office of the Attorney General to handle the legal matters using the appropriate processes.”

McConnell started dating Altimari not long after she joined the force in 2014, according to the report.

In September, 2016, the borough added a new “employee dating policy” to its Employee Policy and Procedures Manual, the report said.

The policy states that in the case of supervisor-subordinate dating, “both parties shall report to their immediate supervisor or human resources.” The policy allows management to transfer employees involved in superior-subordinate romantic relationships, and for the termination of anyone who violates the policy. 

Amid widespread dysfunction and political chaos, it seems, the policy was never enforced.

The borough had no human resources manager during McConnell’s stint as interim BA because the previous one had been fired by Shehady in 2018 after accusing him of harassment. (Gant and the new administration created and filled a new HR director position earlier this year.)

The public safety committee, headed by Triggiano, and charged with overseeing the department appears to have been largely inoperative. Last week, Ballard, also once a committee member, accused Triggiano of not holding meetings; Triggiano countered, saying Ballard and his allies who then held the majority conducted their own meetings without her.

The AG found McConnell did not comply with the disclosure rule until 2021. And by that time, due to his dual role, his only supervisor to report his conflict to was himself. 

On September 28, 2021, McConnell submitted an electronic memo to his own personnel file about his relationship with Altimari, the AG’s report says. Just four days earlier, McConnell had received a report from a department official who upheld a complaint that Altimari had violated the department’s time-off policy and recommended discipline.

But the AG’s office found no documentation of what McConnell did with the report. According to AG’s probe, in January, 2023, McConnell told the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office that the complaints against Altimari “were ‘unfounded’ and therefore not subject to discipline. The investigating officer was never consulted or notified of this decision.”

In the interim, when the council decided to re-start the search it had abruptly curtailed  for a full-time BA, Mayor Pasquale Menna indicated it was far from urgent – largely, he said, because McConnell was doing “an extraordinary job.”

Despite the allegations about McConnell’s work as chief, Gant says there are no concerns about actions he took as interim borough administrator for two and a half years.

“As full time Borough Manager for last two and a half months I have found no reason to be concerned about the decisions made by Chief McConnell in his role as Interim Borough Administrator,” Gant told redbankgreen in a statement. “Chief McConnell was extremely helpful to me in the transition process and was an open book about past projects and ongoing plans for the Borough. In fact, I appreciated his availability to me and his knowledge, it was helpful. At this juncture my concern lies in the findings of the AG’s report and that is the focus of the Borough currently.”

Note: The report, provided to redbankgreen by the NJAG upon request, contained numerous redactions, including Altimari’s name. But the redacted content, including Altimari’s identity, was revealed when the document’s electronic file format was converted to text. Afterward, redbankgreen declined a request by the NJAG that it “abide by the intent of the redactions” and “remove” from its reporting information that had been blacked out in the report.

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