Ocean County Prosecutor removes OPRA official over Facebook posts

An Ocean County prosecutor has been removed as the Office’s OPRA custodian after posting negative comments about OPRA and about the President on his personal Facebook page. As stated in the article, “Employees of the Prosecutor’s Office are held to a code of conduct that requires them to appear neutral in matters of politics to avoid the appearance of bias.”

Asbury Park Press
Dec. 8, 2015
by Erik Larsen
(full article here and re-posted below)

Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato has reassigned the lawyer in his office responsible for enforcing the state Open Public Records Act, after that assistant prosecutor made statements on social media criticizing the law and President Barack Obama.

Otto Nicholas Monaco, 53, a Republican appointee, used his personal Facebook page to post unflattering statements about Obama, in which his fitness to be president is questioned and Obama’s middle name Hussein is emphasized. Employees of the Prosecutor’s Office are held to a code of conduct that requires them to appear neutral in matters of politics to avoid the appearance of bias.

Monaco said in an email on Tuesday that he was unable to comment on the matter. The assistant prosecutor was appointed by Coronato on March 3, 2014 and receives an annual salary of $85,509, according to the county Department of Employee Relations.

Coronato took action after the assistant prosecutor became the subject of a public complaint and lawsuit filed by Harry B. Scheeler, Jr., a self-described open government activist who regularly submits OPRA requests to investigate suspected wrongful conduct on the part of government agencies. Scheeler operates the website www.opracrusades.com.

“We have received the information from Mr. Scheeler, Jr. and are doing a full review of its contents,” Coronato said in a prepared statement on Tuesday. “At this time Assistant Prosecutor Monaco has been relieved of his OPRA duties.”

Over the weekend, Scheeler sent an email to Coronato and the news media with screen grabs from Monaco’s personal Facebook page that showed the anti-Obama posts and comments critical of the OPRA law itself. Monaco wrote that the counsel fee provision of OPRA was being abused by record-seekers who were retaining lawyers for the purpose of obtaining large legal awards from public agencies in disputes over access.

Scheeler had taken an interest in the arrest last January of journalist Andrew P. Flinchbaugh, 23, of Lacey, who was charged with obstructing administration of law for refusing to turn over his camera to a detective from the Prosecutor’s Office. Flinchbaugh, who worked for The Lacey Reporter, had gone to the scene of a motor vehicle crash in which Detective John Scott Stevens, a 15-year veteran of the Prosecutor’s Office, had died. The charge against Flinchbaugh was later dropped and Coronato expressed regret over the reporter’s arrest.

In September, Scheeler filed an OPRA request with the Prosecutor’s Office for records related to the Jan. 8 incident and the parties involved. Specifically, he asked for written reports on the incident, and the resume and training certifications of the detective from the Prosecutor’s Office who arrested Flinchbaugh, according to Scheeler’s lawsuit.

However, Monaco denied the request on the grounds that the arrest record was still part of an open investigation eight months after the fact, because the county government was in negotiation with Flinchbaugh to settle a civil lawsuit over the episode. Access to the arresting officer’s resume and training records was also denied because that information was part of the officer’s personnel file, which Monaco argued was not public information under the law, according to the suit.

Scheeler wants a Superior Court judge to order the release of the records and money to cover the cost of his attorney fees and the suit.

“I did not in my wildest dreams expect to have (to) sue over this,” Scheeler said, adding, “”I have relatives in law enforcement, I know they don’t have Facebook pages, they can’t run the risk of being seen as biased or having opinion.”

Coronato promised a prompt response.

“I will take quick and appropriate actions to address Mr. Scheeler, Jr’s correspondence,” Coronato said.