By Tom Troncone
Special to the Herald News, North Jersey Media Group
Copyright 2006 North Jersey Media Group Inc.,
All Rights Reserved
Joseph Caiati strode into Lodi police headquarters Monday night sporting a white police shirt adorned with a gold badge that said "Chief."
He signed in as chief. He began working his shift as chief. He visited a favorite local diner dressed as chief.
There's only one hitch: Caiati is not the chief.
Puzzled police officers didn't know what to make of Caiati, a lieutenant, arriving for work in the chief's uniform. Had police Chief Vincent Caruso been replaced without warning?
It turns out Caiati was expressing frustration over sluggish progress in settling a federal lawsuit he filed against Lodi officials in 2003, said his attorney, Gina Mendola Longarzo. Caiati, who still had the top-cop uniform from a 2001 stint as acting chief, wanted to make a point, Longarzo said.
Mayor Gary Paparozzi lashed out at the veteran police officer Tuesday.
"He showed no common sense," Paparozzi said. "It was done out of vindictiveness and immature stupidity."
The dust-up stems from a settlement Caiati and the borough reached last month over a federal whistleblower lawsuit he filed against Caruso, Paparozzi and several other municipal officials.
Caiati claimed he was passed over for promotions, and eventually demoted, after cooperating with FBI agents in an investigation of the Police Department a decade ago.
The lawsuit, settled on May 25, called for Caiati to receive more than $300,000 plus deferred money, Paparozzi said. He was also to be sworn in as chief but would immediately step down, file his retirement papers and then collect a chief's pension from the state.
"One day after the settlement was approved, he was supposed to be sworn in as chief," Longarzo said. "They haven't sworn him in and haven't made any of the payments. ... Thirty days have come and gone, and Joe is getting frustrated. He wants this to end."
The breaking point apparently came on Monday, when the borough was supposed to give Caiati a check. Paparozzi said borough finance officials were still working out the exact sum, holding up the process.
Hours later, Caiati showed up for his 6 p.m. shift as tour commander in chief's attire.
"He had no right to do it," Paparozzi said.
"He's saying we passed him over because he cooperated with the FBI. That's insane," the mayor said. "I mean, he was driving around town as chief."
Borough officials agreed to the payout, Paparozzi said, because "sometimes it's cheaper to settle than fight."
Caruso, who had ended his workday before Caiati arrived, assured concerned officers that he was still in charge. He said Tuesday that he tried to stay above the fray.
"I was out of it," said Caruso, chief of the department since January 2003. "I wasn't involved in it."
Instead, Borough Manager Anthony Luna went to the Police Department and talked with Caiati, who as night patrol commander would have been in charge of the on-duty officers anyway. Borough officials allowed Caiati to work the rest of his shift in the chief's uniform, and he promised not to wear it again, Paparozzi said.
"I think what he wanted to do was make a point and embarrass the chief," the mayor said.
"I don't know if he is even fit to be an officer," he quickly added.
Caruso and Caiati have a stormy history.
As head of internal affairs in 1998, Caiati signed an arrest warrant against Caruso for allegedly grabbing the neck of a massage parlor owner who was working as an FBI informant and threatening to kill him. The charges were eventually dropped by Bergen County Prosecutor William Schmidt.
Caruso, who had spent three years suspended from his job, was reinstated with back pay.
Reach Tom Troncone at email@example.com
N.J. officer poses as chief; officials lash out