Ex-prosecutor says Ocean County drug recovery was corrupt
TOMS RIVER — A program to give drug addicts a second chance may in fact have been shaking them down, according to a former state prosecutor who says he was fired after sounding the alarm on a county drug recovery service that may have been breaking the law.
In a whistleblower lawsuit filed this week, Michel Paulhus said his termination was retaliation for him raising questions about then-Prosecutor Joseph Coronato’s relationship with drug addict-turned recovery coach John Brogan.
But Coronato, who is no longer prosecutor, said Saturday that Paulhus was fired after two female subordinates accused him of sexual harassment.
"This is a disgruntled former employee," Coronato said, adding that the allegations in the lawsuit "are totally unfounded and a ruse to hide the fact" that Paulhus had been having an affair with someone he supervised.
Brogan, who pleaded guilty in 2010 to theft by deception and later founded Lifeline Recovery Support Services, provides third-party services for the Blue HART (Heroin Addiction Recovery & Treatment) program in Ocean and Monmouth counties. The program allows drug users to turn themselves in and get treatment, sparing them from further criminal charges.
Paulhus' lawsuit says he was concerned that Brogan’s program was sending defendants to rehab centers out of state without court approval and in violation of their probation requirements.
In one case that Paulhus said he learned of, Brogan’s assistant took a defendant to a drug dealer so that she could buy drugs and consume them so that she would test positive and be able to get admitted to a Florida rehab facility.
Paulhus said that Brogan then demanded that her parents pay the rehab facility and provide him with proof that they had signed the contract before he would notify her probation officers about her unauthorized absence from New Jersey.
Paulhus said the parents were concerned about their daughter being found guilty of violating probation, so they signed a contract with Brogan Recovery Solutions.
Coronato said Saturday that his office forwarded the allegations against Brogan to the state Attorney General's Office for an independent investigation.
New Jersey 101.5 could not reach an attorney representing Brogan, who is not named as a defendant in Paulhus' lawsuit, and the phone number listed on his company's website went unanswered on Thursday. But Brogan in September denied the accusations and accused Paulhus of being a “Democratic individual” seeking political gain by “trying to cover the facts of why he was really fired.”
Paulhus, who was the third-highest ranking member of the prosecutor’s at the time, said he brought his concerns to the attention of Coronato and First Assistant Prosecutor John Corson Jr., in May.
Paulhus said he told Coronato that that Brogan was “improperly and unlawfully benefiting from his personal relationship with” Coronato and his “business relationship” with the Prosecutor’s Office.
The lawsuit says that that he was called into a meeting with Coronato and Corson a month later and told that he would be fired effective in October.
“This news came as a complete shock and surprise,” his lawsuit says, because Paulhus had been “a loyal and dedicated member of the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office for over 25 years.”
But he ended up being kicked out months earlier after he put the office on notice in July that he intended to sue for wrongful termination.
“Defendant Coronato could not even muster the professional courtesy or personal courage to deliver the news of this unlawful and retaliatory termination to Mr. Paulhus himself,” his lawsuit, filed in Superior Court of Ocean County, says. “Rather, he sluffed off the delivery of this illegal employment action to subordinates of Plaintiff.”
Coronato, who Gov. Phil Murphy replaced as prosecutor in October, could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for current Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer did not return a request for comment about the lawsuit or Brogan’s continued work with the county.
A spokesman for the Prosecutor’s Office in Monmouth, meanwhile, said Brogan’s agency continues to be among a half dozen recovery specialist organizations that are used by their office and some municipal police departments in that county.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.