Twp. solicitor suspended as Waterford feud escalates

Posted: May 17, 2012

A months-long legal battle in Waterford Township over the posting of allegations of police misconduct and photographs of off-duty officers drinking at area bars on a now-defunct website that attracted a local following took another turn Tuesday night when the Township Committee indefinitely suspended the municipal attorney.

The committee contends that in March, solicitor John Maroccia leaked news of the suspension of Sgt. Joseph McNally to the website — WaterfordTwpTeaParty.com — after the officer was accused of threatening a resident with whom he has a long-running dispute. It has also asked the state attorney general and the state Supreme Court’s Office of Attorney Ethics to investigate the incident.

Maroccia, reached Wednesday, said he planned to file a lawsuit against the township within weeks.

“It was a 10-second phone call, and the arrest [of McNally] was a matter of public record. There was nothing unethical about it,” he said. “I’m not going away.”

A town of 10,500 on the edge of the Pine Barrens, Waterford has been embroiled in allegations of political corruption and police abuse since August, when McNally, a township resident, filed suit claiming the website was launched as part of a vendetta led by Mayor Maryann Merlino against him and other officers.

In April, McNally’s attorney informed the Township Committee that he had telephone records showing that shortly after being informed of his client’s suspension, Maroccia called Ronald Passarella, a resident who allegedly used pen names to write on the website. He also said records showed that Merlino and Passarella had talked on the phone at least 100 times in the 11 months after the web site’s launch in October 2010.

Merlino has claimed no involvement with the website. She did not respond to a phone call for comment Wednesday.

Committeeman Bill Richardson, who is at odds with the mayor, said he was withholding any action against her pending the outcome of McNally’s suit.

“There’s a lot of innuendo in the letter [from McNally’s attorney], but there’s not enough to move against [Merlino],” he said.

The website has not been operating since April, but McNally’s lawsuit remains in court, Richardson said.

With its porch swings and gentle hum of cicadas, Waterford would appear an unlikely setting for hardball politics. But the mix of small-town life and long-standing family feuds makes for a combative mix, residents say.

“There’s a lot of vendettas,” said Joe Paladino, who retired as police chief in 1998. “It’s a shame neighbors can’t get along with neighbors.”

The small, dimly lit municipal courtroom was almost full to capacity during Tuesday night’s meeting.

Most had picked a side. One man was giving an interview when a police officer walked up behind him and whispered in his ear. “They’re funding [the website], the mayor, and the solicitor, and that’s why the lawsuit is there,” the man, Robert Thurston, promptly said.

Others seemed more interested in socializing, as they might at a chicken dinner at the American Legion post.

Helen Lamagna sat in the audience with her husband, Dennis, joking with friends and offering theories on who was aligned with whom. The couple, who are in their 60s, moved to Waterford more than 20 years ago and gushed about their house and the beauty of the town. They have learned to live with the feuds and politics, Lamagna said.

“For a small town, we have a lot of problems,” she said.

Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876, jaosborne@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @osborneja.

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