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Ex-Prosecutor Urges Legislative Probe In Hunterdon Sheriff’s Case

“The indictment didn’t have any merit and the attorney general’s office confirmed it by dismissing it, Courtney said. “Dr Hariri met Trout and Russo at a function and volunteered to help for free if they were injured or needed (medical) advice and not charge them. My clients feel so bad they’re dragging Dr. Hariri into this. He’s a kind-hearted physician and surgeon. They’re making it sound like Dr. Hariri was in a conspiracy with the governor so he could have a sheriff’s badge.”

Courtney said the badge was “more like an ID tag and said Police Surgeon on it,” and that it would be useful as official identification for Hariri when he came to the Sheriff’s Office in Flemington.

Trout, who was elected sheriff in November 2007 after winning a four-way Republican primary in June, had a stormy tenure from the start.

She had barely taken office in January 2008 when Mark Kobner, a retired detective working in the sheriff’s office, called the prosecutor’s office to report that Trout was failing to conduct proper background checks, requiring new employees to sign loyalty oaths, and was creating phony law enforcement identification badges for political allies.

A Rogue SPCA

Further, some of the hires who were slipping in without background checks were friends of hers and Russo’s from the rogue Warren County SPCA chapter that the State Commission of Investigation had charged seven years earlier with mishandling funds, providing its officer with guns, night-vision goggles and other military paraphernalia, and engaging in a scheme to avoid sales tax by having the SPCA purchase cars for the personal use of Russo and others. The following month, in fact, the New Jersey State SPCA would reach a settlement that enabled it to take over the Warren chapter that Russo had helped run.

Courtney dismissed the probe by the State Commission of Investigation, a respected bipartisan agency created by the Legislature in 1968 to expose organized crime and political corruption, as “not the most reliable investigation. People are talking about it like it’s some kind of governmental investigation by the FBI and the CIA, but that’s not what it was. When you hear the SPCA is corrupt, that’s insane.”

Trout allowed Russo to conduct his own background check. Furthermore, Erik Ezekian, one of the former Warren SPCA colleagues she and Russo hired as a sheriff’s investigator had a pending appeal on a drunk-driving conviction following an accident that had ended with him leading a police chase on foot. Ezekian, who had been fired previously by the Rockaway Township and Alpha police departments, later pleaded guilty to falsifying his employment application. Falat, another Warren County SPCA friend of Russo and Trout, was hired as a sheriff’s investigator even though he had no law enforcement experience, but his family had contributed $6,000 in printing services to Trout’s campaign.

First Assistant Prosecutor Ouslander noted that the prosecutor’s office offered to turn over the case to Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s Attorney General’s office to either intervene to clean up the sheriff’s office or pursue criminal charges as it saw fit. But the Division of Criminal Justice, which was then headed by Deborah Gramiccioni (whom Christie recently named Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority), decided to leave the case in county hands.

When Dow and Kwon turned down a similar offer the week after Christie’s January 2010 inauguration, McGovern presented the case to a Hunterdon grand jury, which indicted Trout, Russo, and Falat on a total of 43 counts of official misconduct, including the failure to conduct proper background checks, forcing employees to sign loyalty oaths, and making a false law enforcement badge for Hariri.

Ouslander, Barlyn and McGovern expected no interference as the case moved forward because they had kept Dow’s Attorney General’s office fully informed and had heard no objections, so they were surprised when Dow took over both the case and the prosecutor’s office itself.

Hunterdon County insiders say Barnes’ tenure was tumultuous, noting that he had three lawsuits filed against him, one for allegedly head-butting an employee, but they gave him credit for hiring experienced prosecutors like Ouslander, Barlyn, and McGovern from other counties in an attempt to upgrade the operations of the smallest prosecutor’s office in the state.

Barnes, the brother of Assemblyman Peter Barnes (D-Middlesex) and the son of a former assemblyman, had been appointed by Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey and was worried about his pension when he left. Six months later, however, he resurfaced as an assistant prosecutor in Middlesex, where he had worked previously -- an appointment that required Dow’s approval. Barnes said through an intermediary he did not want to be interviewed about the case.

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