Trooper Gets $325,000 To Settle Whistleblower Suit

TRENTON, NJ &#8211 The state Attorney General’s Office has agreed to pay $325,000 to a former State Police trooper to settle claims he was mistreated after warning that the division was failing to properly keep track of its thousands of weapons.

The settlement, reached in February and recently obtained by The Star-Ledger, was the second in as many years to include a significant payout to a trooper who claimed retaliation after raising concerns about weapons management.

Between the two cases, the Attorney General’s Office has paid out $675,000 to settle claims related to the State Police’s weapons tracking since 2011.

In the most recent case, Lt. Robert Betten in 2008 filed a whistle-blower lawsuit in state Superior Court claiming that, while assigned to the firearms training unit in 2006, he was harassed, threatened, denied assignments and passed over for promotion after he complained of deficient and inconsistent weapon tracking.

Betten, who retired in 2008 after 25 years on the force, said he gave a subordinate, Trooper Neil Talijan, a negative evaluation after determining “the accounting of firearms was severely mismanaged … whereby many firearms were unaccounted for in the system.”

Betten said he was later told by his supervisor, Lt. Tom Waldron, that the troopers union and superintendent’s office were unhappy with the evaluation. He said Waldron attempted to “coerce him into covering up Trooper Talijan’s unaccounted-for firearms.”

Betten also claimed he was retaliated against for reporting that Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes and the president of one of the troopers unions had not attended firearms qualification sessions as required by division rules.

An attorney for Betten, Robert Anderson, said his client filed the suit “with the best interest of the citizens in mind.”

“We hope the State Police have taken the proper steps to fix the problems identified by Lt. Betten,” Anderson said. “There are policies and procedures in place; they just weren’t followed.”

A spokesman for the State Police, Lt. Stephen Jones, declined comment on the lawsuits or the settlement, but said “there’s always a review and an effort to improve all of our systems for tracking weapons.” He said no changes were made as a result of the lawsuit.

“There are at least six or more physical inventories of our weapons each year, and they are reviewed by different department levels,” Jones said. “That would include inventories of guns issued to troopers and non-issued guns.”

He added, “I’m confident we have an excellent system for tracking weapons.”

The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the case.

In addition to the Betten case, the office in 2011 agreed to pay Sgt. 1st Class James Meyers $350,000 to settle claims he was threatened with transfer and discipline, relieved of supervisory duties and told to “back off” after raising concerns about weapons.

Meyers, an 18-year veteran, said in a lawsuit filed in 2007 in state Superior Court that he reported a “significant lack of documentation and other irregularities associated with the overall organization and tracking of weapons” in 2006.

In return for the payments in both cases, the troopers agreed to drop their claims and the state admitted no liability.

The whistle-blower lawsuits were among more than a dozen filed by troopers against the State Police since 2005. A Star-Ledger review of the suits last year found allegations of infighting and retaliation persist despite a history of claims by troopers that have cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

The report illustrated the personal, sometimes-nasty internal disputes between troopers, and the hardships that whistle-blowers claim after breaching the so-called “blue wall of silence” in a culture where those who keep their mouths shut climb the ranks.

The lawsuits also allege managers in the State Police use transfers as punishment, sometimes relocating outspoken troopers to dead-end assignments or barracks far from their homes.

The Attorney General’s Office has disputed claims that retaliation within the ranks of the State Police is prevalent and said such lawsuits are filed in any workplace.

From The Star-Ledger

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