The fax arrived at the New Jersey Herald before the suit was filed. Unusual. Sheriff Michael Strada sent it himself. Very unusual.
The Sheriff has been doing his own PR for the last several months. Complaints galore. He ripped the Freeholder board publicly, and at Sussex County Republican Club meetings for questioning his budget, stating that he was above reproach and no one was allowed to question his budget. His ire was placed directly at Freeholder George Graham and Freeholder Jonathan Rose, both members of the Sussex County Budget Committee.
According to sources inside the county, he was also angry at the county Treasurer, Robert Maikas and the County Budget Director Mary Jones. In 2015, after the resignation of County Treasurer Bernard Re, the auditors and new budget staff had uncovered a semi-secret Constitutional Officers “slush fund”. The Sussex County Constitutional Officers are Sheriff Michael Strada, County Clerk Jeff Parrott and County Surrogate Gary Chiusano. The fund had been authorized by a previous freeholder board sometime in the early 2010’s as a means for the constitutional officers to promote their departments, within a strict guideline as provided by state law. Apparently, again according to sources within the county treasury department, the staff and auditors began to question the use of the funds for what appeared to be “political purposes”. Funds were also allegedly being used for donations for politically motivated groups and for materials that were used at political functions.Staff members officially advised the constitutional officers as to the statutory guidelines. The sheriff in particular was incensed, accusing the Freeholders of attacking him. According to all sources, the Freeholders at the time were not aware of the fund, or of the actions of the treasury department employees.
The new employees at the treasury department also began reviewing purchasing practices as a matter of course. According to sources, soon after Mr. Re retired, the county Purchasing Agent, Tom Gildersleeve also retired after over 20 years in his position, the new Purchasing Agent began a systematic review of purchasing guidelines and practices and uncovered a trend of abuse of the Purchase Order system by several departments, including the Sheriff’s Department. Advisories were provided to all the departments, but the Sheriff became enraged. The Sheriff would order and receive items from his handpicked vendors before issuing a purchase order, a direct violation of county and state policy.
According to county employees, the sheriff is also incensed because he has not received a new vehicle, even though the sheriff special requested options that required longer delivery time.
According to the suit, and according to sources, the Freeholder Director at the time, George Graham and Deputy Director Carl Lazzaro attended a meeting on the Jail and Sheriff’s Department. According to all, the meeting went well. The main concerns at the time were to improve safety conditions at the jail. But Strada was more concerned that the County Finance Department was asking questions about his use of funds outside of state mandated procedures. His main allegation was that he could do anything he wanted regardless of accounting rules and regulations. He was so adamant about it that he threatened the Freeholders at public functions.
But conditions at the jail were getting worse primarily due to a growing culture of insider favoritism and retribution. The Sheriff has been accused of being out of touch and “distracted” for some time. The rash of grievances has been steadily growing for some time with several corrections officers seeking individual meetings with outsiders to publicize their frustration. The allegations point out the repeated actions of Sgt. Erich Olsen under the direct command of Sheriff Strada to harass corrections officers.
Before leaving for a new position in Atlantic City, former Herald reporter David Danzis had also done quite a bit of research on the affairs of the Sussex County Sheriff’s Department, but the Herald refused to print the growing list of grievances and allegations of impropriety and favoritism leveled at Sheriff’s officers, but particularly at corrections officers.
According to sources inside the sheriff’s department, the Sheriff became livid at the Freeholder board, particularly at Freeholder Rose and Freeholder Graham when the board requested information about a 2013 incident at the jail regarding a “sanctioned” beating of an inmate that required a payout of $150,000. The incident, according to public record meetings, was deliberately kept secret from the Freeholder Board for over 4 years. The Sussex County Prosecutor’s office was brought in to investigate. At this time it is still considered an active investigation.
Allegations include a cover up on the part of the Corrections Officers involved and Internal Affairs that went all the way up to the Sheriff. Allegations have included the possibility that the Sheriff may have interfered with an official investigation. The only known participant besides the Sheriff still on the force was promoted to Undersheriff soon after the incident became public in 2017. According to Internal Affairs directives, the County Prosecutor should have been notified at the time of the incident. The fact that the notification did not take place may be a criminal matter.
Michael Strada was elected as Sheriff in 2010 on his second attempt by attacking Sheriff Robert Untig for “double-dipping”; the practice of collecting a public pension while serving in a public position. Sheriff Untig opted not to seek re-election and Strada coasted to a general election victory after a tough primary battle. He pledged to end the practice for himself and his appointees, but soon after becoming Sheriff, Strada began collecting his public pension and appointed double-dippers throughout the department. Strada also began receiving a $10,000 a year stipend to serve as the county OEM, Emergency Management coordinator, even though it was expressly prohibited by law to allow the County Sheriff to act in that capacity. In order to receive the stipend he called on Senator Oroho to get the law changed. According to sources, the Sheriff acts in name only, actually having others do the job.
Strada has many problems, among them are justifying his astronomical budget. A budget that was set for a jail that housed from 180 to 220 inmates, but doesn’t seem appropriate when the present inmate population is running at 85 and below. Corrections officers have stated that they are tripping over one another with over-staffing at every shift. Another issue is the 911 center that has been stocked with nepotism and crony appointments. Statements from several communities in Sussex County have pointed to the Sheriff’s management and crony practices at the Dispatch center as the reason that their municipalities have not joined the County 911 dispatch center. Strada, for his part has refused to comment on the operations at the jail or the 911 center.
According to officers on the job, officers are expected attend and to contribute at all Strada fund-raisers. Names are taken at every event. Those not participating can expect retribution.