A partial audio recording obtained by the I-Team appears to show the mayor of Irvington, New Jersey, and his township attorney offering a job promotion and salary increase to a municipal employee — in exchange for the worker’s wife dropping her 2014 claim of sexual harassment against the mayor and the town.
In the recording, which documents a pre-trial discussion about settling the lawsuit, Mayor Tony Vauss and Irvington Township Attorney Ramon Rivera offer job benefits worth “a lot of money” to Carl Brown, the husband of Tamara Smith, a former township code enforcement officer who accused Vauss of sexually violating her inside the Irvington municipal building.
“What we’re willing to talk about is an increase for Carl which, you know, would be a salary increase, an annual increase in his base which he would receive every year for a period of time which would amount to a lot of money over a long period,” said Rivera. “That’s something we could do as soon as Monday and resolve the case.”
In the conversation, secretly recorded by Smith, Vauss stated that he was not willing to discuss a cash settlement to his accuser, but he would agree for compensation to be paid to her husband.
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“The reason we’re talking about compensating you is because we have a different opinion of what happened here - as far as who is the victim and who’s not the victim,” Vauss told Brown. “So compensating you is something I’m willing to do because you may be the victim in this scenario.”
The settlement negotiations ultimately broke down and Mayor Vauss was victorious in a jury trial. His lawyers successfully argued the mayor was being targeted by an employee with ulterior motives and credibility problems.
Still, some Irvington taxpayers were disappointed to hear a municipal job was used as a bargaining chip in settlement negotiations over a sexual misconduct claim.
“I don’t agree with it,” said Golden Robinson, a longtime Irvington resident. “You get a job on your merits.”
Singer Irie, another taxpayer who’s called Irvington home for decades, said the recording raises questions about how the Township has handled other legal settlements.
“How do we know how much more of this is going on?” Irie said. “People must get their jobs because of their skill.”
A variety of federal and state corruption laws forbid offering taxpayer resources in return for personal benefit, but former prosecutors say the legality of the mayor’s conduct depends on his intent.
“If the public official’s intent was to benefit himself it could be a crime but if he was trying to benefit the municipality the conduct may be permitted,” said Chuck Rosenberg, a former federal prosecutor. “There’s a big difference between something that’s awful and something that’s unlawful.”
Mayor Vauss did not respond to questions from the I-Team. In the past he has flatly denied Tamara Smith’s sexual harassment claim, calling it “outrageous” and “far-fetched.”
Township Attorney Ramon Rivera, who did much of the talking on the audio recording, emailed a statement defending the settlement negotiations.
“The meeting which you are referring to was a routine settlement discussion with the Plaintiffs,” Rivera wrote. “Importantly, the meeting, which was surreptitiously recorded, took place in Plaintiff's attorney's office 8 years ago. Plaintiffs rejected all attempts to settle and the Mayor and Township were ultimately successful at trial where Plaintiff was also found to have defamed the Mayor and ordered to pay damages. It is also noteworthy that the Judge barred the Plaintiff from using the subject recording at the trial.”
Though the jury ordered Tamara Smith to pay $7,000 in damages for defaming Mayor Vauss, she says will never pay it and stands by her sexual assault allegation. After the jury sided with Vauss, Smith was fired from her code enforcement officer job after allegedly issuing a deficient summons to the mayor’s ex-wife. She unsuccessfully appealed to get her job back and now works in the private sector.
Her husband, Carl, now works as Irvington’s Superintendent of Sanitation. Had he accepted the 2014 job offer in return for dropping the sexual harassment suit, Smith says the additional employment benefits would have amounted to a legal settlement disguised as regular municipal payroll.
“If any money was coming out of the Township of Irvington, I think the residents - if they had to pay for it – they have a right to know where their money is being spent,” Smith said.