Damon Tyner has created a culture of sexism and fear since taking over as Atlantic County’s prosecutor, a lawsuit filed by three women who have worked for him claims.
“Apparently eager to wield the power given to him by New Jersey’s political power brokers (Tyner) engaged in additional conduct that raises serious questions about his ability to serve the citizens of Atlantic County and the State of New Jersey,” the suit reads.
One-time acting Atlantic County Prosecutor Diane Ruberton and retired Detective Lt. Heather McManus spoke at a press conference Thursday to announce the filing, and give some insight into the allegations.
A third plaintiff, Chief Assistant Prosecutor Donna Fetzer, did not attend because she still works for the office.
The office became a place where women were paid less for similar work and harassment claims were ignored, according to the three-count suit that claims civil rights violations, equal pay disparity and harassment, and retaliation.
The suit names Tyner, his office, Atlantic County and his two top prosecutors, First Assistant Cary Shill and Deputy First Assistant Mario Formica.
Ruberton was fired last summer, with McManus retiring because she was fearful she could be next.
Tyner at first would not comment on the suit but has since released a statement.
“It is apparent that the plaintiffs are living in an alternative universe,” he said. “The very same conduct they accuse me and the members of my administration of committing was actually carried out by them and others during their brief, ineffective period of leadership of the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office. I am disappointed that this has drawn attention away from all of the important work that the women and men of the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office accomplish on a daily basis.”
He continued: “In 2019, we look forward to continuing to fight the scourge of the opioid epidemic, human trafficking, sexual assaults and violent crime.”
The litigation follows a letter authored by the women that sources tell BreakingAC sparked an investigation into these claims, which include allegations that Tyner committed mortgage fraud by selling his house to his father-in-law and an inflated price and buying it back for $1.
The women compare Tyner’s actions to those of a former Prosecutor’s Office detective who is currently serving a federal prison sentence for conspiracy to commit bank fraud.
Tyner has garnered public praise for solving the April Kauffman murder case that included a drug ring led by her husband, Dr. James Kauffman.
But the lawsuit alleges that problems in that case — including alleged inappropriate actions by a former lead detective and a reported information leak by a municipal police officer — were ignored to avoid investigations that would have had to be revealed to the defense.
Instead, the suit alleges, Tyner used the case to go on a “publicity tour” that included a 20/20 special before the case went to trial.
But the suit claims an investigation into the mortgage fraud allegations was moved to the FBI’s Newark office to avoid any conflicts since the Prosecutor’s Office worked with local FBI agents in the Kauffman case.
The county hired a retired Superior Court judge to investigate allegations of gender inequality in the office but did not have the proper background for such an investigation, the suit claims.
Instead, the unnamed judge gave Tyner a 23-page memorandum in which Ruberton detailed her concerns about gender discrimination.
At that time, Ruberton was called into Tyner’s office and told, “Your services are no longer required,” the suit claims.
This move had a ripple effect through the office, “sending a frightening and chilling message to all those who even considered speaking out to correct inequity in the workplace,” the suit states.
The next day, Tyner allegedly accepted the application of someone recommended by the judge, who then was hired as an assistant prosecutor.
Men up, women down
Tyner began his tenure by demoting Ruberton, Fetzer and a third unnamed female prosecutor, cutting their pay, the suit claims. Shill and Formica were promoted and given raises.
Male detectives were moved to high-profile units while more experienced women were given less prestigious assignments, it claims.
Ruberton had served as Prosecutor Jim McClain’s first assistant, making her second in command. But Tyner moved Cary Shill into that position, giving him an $8,000 raise.
Ruberton and Formica were made deputy first assistant prosecutors. This was a promotion for Formica, whose pay increased by $30,000, the suit claims. Ruberton saw a $20,000 pay cut.
Fetzer’s demotion cost her $22,482 in annual pay.
The moves also increased the gender disparity in supervisory that has long existed in the office, according to the suit.
McManus was one of only two women in supervisory positions of the office’s 75 detectives.
McClain tried to fix the gender gap, even before he headed the office, the suit claims.
He allegedly pushed then-Prosecutor Ted Housel to promote Ruberton and another female prosecutor to chief assistant.
Before that, only two of the seven chief assistants were women, even though they make up more than half of the legal staff.
Under McClain, the percentage of women in supervisory positions went from 42 percent to 57 percent. It is at 50 percent under Tyner, the suit says.
Since McClain is a sitting judge, he cannot comment on these issues. Housel died in 2017.
Tyner did hire four female prosecutors and just one man from September 2017 to July 2018. But the suit claims the only one who got more than the contractual starting salary of $56,000 was the one man, who received $59,427, more than 6 percent more than the women.
Claims of sexual harassment and questions about actions in the Kauffman case were ignored, the suit claims.
He also is accused of firing two agents in order to hire his brother, retired Atlantic City Detective Michael Graham. While agents usually start at about $30,000 a year, Graham’s starting salary included $50,000 and a car, the suit says.
That’s also the salary for a new paid intern position that the suit says was given to the son of a prominent attorney with well-known local law firm in Atlantic City.