The Record (Bergen County, NJ)
BYLINE: Stephanie Akin, Staff Writer; Email: email@example.com
Ken Zisa is no longer the Hackensack police chief, but his relationship with the city is far from severed.
The city will continue to pay to defend Zisa in civil lawsuits filed in state and federal court by more than 20 current and retired police officers despite an order Wednesday by a Superior Court judge that Zisa — who was convicted two weeks ago of official misconduct and insurance fraud — must forfeit his position, City Manager Stephen Lo Iacono said.
“It would be nearly impossible to separate the defense of the city from any one of the named defendants,” Lo Iacono said. “Plus, none of the issues involved with the civil suits have any connection at all with what the criminal matter was about.”
The city and its insurers have spent more than $2.4 million defending Zisa in the civil suits, which allege that he coerced subordinate officers to donate money to his campaigns for state office and to cast votes for his preferred candidates in several elections, among other allegations.
Even as Zisa was being stripped of his title Wednesday, an attorney hired by the city was lobbying a federal judge on his behalf.
Richard Malagiere, who has been paid more than $754,000 by the city over the past two years, asked the court to postpone Zisa’s depositions, which were on hold during the criminal trial. Malagiere, who did not return a request for comment, was seeking a further postponement to give Zisa time to appeal his criminal conviction.
Mark Frost, an attorney who represents 18 of the police officers who have filed civil suits, said the depositions should go forward. “The trial is now over and, as such, we now believe he is fair game,” Frost said.
The civil suits claim several million dollars in damages and name other defendants, including Tomas Padilla, who on Wednesday was designated provisional chief.
While the civil allegations are not connected to Zisa’s criminal conviction — Zisa was found guilty of improperly failing to recuse himself from a 2004 investigation involving his former girlfriend and intervening in another in 2008 — the cases have been inextricably intertwined since their inception.
The criminal investigation was spawned by a tip from a private investigator hired by one of the civil defendants, PBA President Anthony Ferraioli, according to court testimony. Zisa’s 2010 arrest coincided with the filing of many of the civil lawsuits, some of them by police officers who later testified against him.
The city has not paid for Zisa’s criminal defense. Zisa successfully lobbied the state police union’s legal defense fund to cover his costs — entitling him to up to $40,000 for criminal cases and $20,000 for administrative hearings.
The city also does not owe him any money after he cashed in $50,000 in unused sick time after his arrest, Lo Iacono said.
In the Superior Court hearing Wednesday, Judge Joseph Conte – who heard the criminal trial – addressed a crowd including a stone-faced Zisa, several plainclothes police officers who have sued him, and a handful of his most vehement critics.
“A city should not be governed by someone who has been convicted of crimes of this nature merely because of the possibility that the conviction may be reversed,” Conte said.
The judge granted a request from Zisa’s lawyer, Patricia Prezioso, to postpone a decision on whether Zisa will have to forfeit his pension until his sentencing, which Conte tentatively rescheduled for Aug. 15.
Zisa did not comment after the order, but Prezioso said it was what she had expected.
“Our focus now will be addressing the conviction,” she said.
Prezioso told the court she plans to file motions seeking to overturn Zisa’s conviction, arguing that the trial exposed evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, among other issues.
She also said she wanted the opportunity to argue Zisa’s case with the state Division of Pensions and Benefits.
Zisa has a good chance of convincing the board that he should at least be entitled to the benefits he accrued before Sept. 1, 2004, the date of his first alleged offense, she said.
State Treasury spokesman Andrew Pratt could not say what the ruling would be, but he said the crimes for which Zisa had been convicted certainly put his pension in doubt.
“The boards of the pension funds have shown little tolerance for such conduct while in office,” Pratt said.
Zisa’s pension, based on his $191,000 salary before his suspension, would be about $11,000 a month, according to state estimates.
Conte originally planned to decide on Zisa’s position at a June 14 hearing, but he moved up the hearing following a crescendo of public outrage over Zisa’s ability to keep his post — albeit suspended and without pay — after his conviction May 16.
Hackensack officials maintained that they were powerless to take action to remove Zisa without a decision from the court, in spite of public cries for the city and its officials to take a position on the issue. Public officials are required by state statute, under most conditions, to forfeit their positions immediately after being found guilty of an offense involving dishonesty or a third-degree crime or higher, both of which apply to Zisa.
Lo Iacono said that Conte’s ruling was no surprise.
“Effectively, this just kind of makes official what’s been essentially already in place,” Lo Iacono said. “The fact that he hasn’t been the chief, and now he’s officially not the chief. this gives me the opportunity to appoint the chief now that a vacancy officially exists.”
Padilla was named interim chief last week and has been serving as acting officer in charge since Zisa’s suspension.
Civil service regulations dictate that the city advertise the position and, if more than three of the four eligible captains want to apply, choose the official chief from the three top scorers on a qualifying test. Regardless of the process, Lo Iacono said, Padilla would be his first choice for the job.
Padilla said he welcomed the court’s decision.
“This allows the department as a whole to move forward,” he said.
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