A municipal worker in Princeton was fired Thursday morning as the investigation into the alleged misuse of town property, equipment and employees at the local sewer department continues.
Princeton Administrator Marc Dashield released a statement about the ongoing investigation Thursday morning.
“The Mercer County Prosecutors Office is overseeing the investigation into alleged misconduct at the sewer operating division with the cooperation of the Princeton Police Department,” reads the statement. “As a result of preliminary findings from this investigation, the municipality terminated one employee this morning. There may or may not be further actions taken. Because the ongoing investigation involves this individual, the municipality will not be releasing his name at this time.”
Planet Princeton has identified the employee who was fired as Tom Hughes, the manager of infrastructure and operations at the sewer department. Hughes could not be reached for comment. Hughes and his department are overseen by Bob Hough, the director of infrastructure and operations for the municipality.
Questions from a Planet Princeton reporter two weeks ago and a story by the reporter last week triggered the investigation regarding operations at the sewer department, which is located at 298 River Road near the border of Rocky Hill and Kingston. Town officials initially told Planet Princeton the allegations could be a “misunderstanding” or a “misperception.”
The municipal site, funded by taxpayer dollars, has allegedly been used by at least four private contractors as a dumping ground and as a source for cheap equipment and labor for at least one company. Hughes allegedly received kickbacks in exchange for the use of the land for dumping and the use of the other resources.
Planet Princeton received tips from various sources, including some town employees, about the alleged dumping and misuse of equipment and staff members, and obtained photographs and videos of dirt being dumped at the public site. The reporter followed trucks loaded with dirt from a job to the site, and also went out during daytime business hours and observed municipal employees and town vehicles at private job sites. Employees said the work they did for the contractors on many occasions was not work that was part of the scope of their jobs as town employees.
Visitors to the 100-acre site can see, as the reporter did, mountains of dirt and asphalt. Piles of milling materials, allegedly dumped at the site by a contractor, still remain in the same spot two years later. About 40 truck loads of dirt are also piled up at the site from the Mary Moss Playground in downtown Princeton. The town paid a contractor to renovate the park last year. Dirt allegedly was dumped at the River Road site last summer, even though the contract for the job specified that the dirt disposal was the contractor’s responsibility. The contractor has claimed that the dirt was dumped on private property. But in a video of a truck dumping dirt at the River Road municipal facility that was obtained by Planet Princeton, a truck driver acknowledged that the dirt was from the playground. An employee alleged that Hughes allowed the contractor to dump the dirt for $75 cash per truckload.
As recently as Memorial Day weekend, a new pile appeared — a truckload of dirt and asphalt from a private job on Dodds Lane. The contractor was given a key to the gated site and had access when employees were away for the holiday weekend.
Even if the town had authorized the dumping, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has strict regulations about the disposal of concrete, asphalt and other materials, which must be dumped at special facilities. The dumping also raises questions about supervision. Anyone who visits the site can see the piles of dirt and asphalt.
Employees said one contractor allegedly is allowed to use municipal sewer department vehicles and workers for private jobs. For example, employees and a $300,000 sewer department vehicle called a jet truck allegedly have been deployed to some jobs to help a private contractor install new sewer lines for homeowners.
Employees also have alleged that:
-Stone purchased by the town allegedly has been used for a private driveway and also given to a private contractor in exchange for cash.
-Parts for a bulldozer allegedly were purchased with taxpayer dollars, then given to a contractor in exchange for cash
-Piping materials allegedly have been given to a local developer of teardown properties in exchange for cash
-Municipal gas allegedly was used for personal purposes and the employee regularly filled up a gas can to take gas home for a family member.
In response to the questions from Planet Princeton two weeks ago, Dashield said the municipality uses the River Road site to stage and store soil, rock and road milling for and from various municipal projects. In some cases, the materials are used by private contractors when they are completing municipal projects, including projects by one of the contractors in question. He also said contractors are allowed to have access to the site after hours and use the River Road site to stage their material and their equipment for municipal projects, and that the town allows the contractors to stage materials at River Road for future projects.
In order to provide exceptional service to residents, sewer operating employees will work with the homeowners and contractor, Dashield said. They may help identify issues in the municipal portion of the sewer, or the portion that has been installed by the municipality. The corrective work would have to be done by a private contractor though, Dashield said.
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