Three women filed a lawsuit against Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner on Thursday, alleging that he retaliated against them in the workplace because they reported to federal officials that he engaged in mortgage fraud, concealed his financial troubles before taking office, and rewarded male political allies and personal friends with choice jobs and salaries while sidelining and firing experienced women.
The 96-page complaint filed in Superior Court on behalf of three former or current veteran employees also accuses Tyner and two top assistants, Cary Shill and Mario Formica, of withholding evidence in the high-profile murder trial of physician James Kauffman, who was charged with killing his wife last year before taking his own life.
Additionally, the suit alleges, Tyner has improperly quashed criminal charges filed against friends and acquaintances.
At a Thursday morning news conference in Egg Harbor Township, the women’s attorneys, Michelle Douglass and Phillip Burnham, said they hoped the lawsuit sends a clear message that women should not face retaliation when they address gender discrimination.
The suit was filed on behalf of former first assistant Diane Ruberton; former Lt. Heather McManus, who oversaw units that included insurance fraud, internal affairs and computer crimes; and chief assistant prosecutor Donna Fetzer. McManus said there was a chill in the office for weeks after Ruberton was confronted, fired, and escorted out in June 2018 after serving for nearly 20 years.
Both women expressed concern for Fetzer, who still works at the office and could not attend the news conference.
“Because I spoke up, because I dared to challenge Mr. Tyner, because I blew the whistle, I was fired,” Ruberton said. McManus, who said she was forced to retire, added, “We felt we had to shine a light on this conduct.”
The lawsuit contends that Tyner, who was appointed to a five-year term by Gov. Chris Christie in 2017, discriminated against women in the office, and whitewashed complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination.
“We will have no comment on the lawsuit,” said Donna Weaver, spokesperson for the Prosecutor’s Office.
All three women had about 20 years' experience in the Prosecutor’s Office with no history of disciplinary problems. Just before Tyner was appointed, Ruberton served as acting prosecutor. Shortly after Tyner arrived, the women said, the discrimination began.
The lawsuit comes after Ruberton, McManus, and Fetzer sent a lengthy letter to the state Attorney General’s Office in October asking for an investigation. Peter Aseltine, a spokesperson for that office, said he could not comment on the investigation.
Tyner issued a brief response in October after the initial complaints were made.
“The matters alleged involved personnel issues with disgruntled former employees and a current employee," he said then in a statement. "As a result, I have retained legal counsel to respond to these matters. The great work of the women and men of the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office will continue unimpaired under my leadership.”
Tyner’s attorney, William Tambussi, did not return calls seeking comment on the lawsuit.
The suit contends that Tyner was appointed prosecutor because of his ties to the politically connected Parker McCay firm in Atlantic City, where he was in private practice before serving as a Superior Court judge for about three years.
The lawsuit alleges that Tyner and other male prosecutors “created a toxic culture for women" in an office where the executive staff is all-male and the detective division, with 75 employees, has only one woman holding a supervisory position.
“This culture favored men over women, turned a blind eye to instances and reports of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and permitted retaliation against anyone who dared question this culture,” according to the lawsuit. Ruberton said Thursday that she was given no explanation as to why she was fired.
According to the lawsuit, Tyner had “clear disregard” of the law, and the women who sued him “do not take lightly the gravity and seriousness of the allegations. … They filed this lawsuit because they realize that they are in a unique position to put an end to [Tyner’s] unlawful conduct.”
The suit also accuses Tyner of fraud. In 2003, the lawsuit says, Tyner and his wife bought a house in Egg Harbor Township for $276,000 and over several years took out mortgages that exceeded the value of the home. In 2006, the house was sold to Tyner’s father-in-law for $425,000 — creating an intentional overvaluation, according to the lawsuit — and was listed as the father-in-law’s primary residence. Instead, Tyner and his family continued to live there, the suit says, and his father-in-law lived elsewhere.
In 2006, Tyner bought the house back for $1, eliminating income taxes on the sale. At the same time, Tyner received a $403,700 mortgage. These transactions, the suit contends, amount to mortgage fraud.
By 2017, Tyner had defaulted on the mortgage, and the bank initiated foreclosure proceedings in March 2017 — the day that he was sworn in as prosecutor. Afterward, Ruberton and McManus, who had investigated corruption for the office, reported allegations of mortgage fraud to the FBI.
Tyner, the suit alleges, “subsequently engaged in a course of conduct intended to harass, embarrass and humiliate” Ruberton and McManus by excluding them from discussions and cases involving corruption and internal affairs, the units they both supervised. Instead, Tyner consulted with Shill and Formica, and directed law enforcement officers to no longer contact Ruberton for cases involving corruption or internal affairs, even though that was her area of expertise.
The suit also accuses Tyner of seeking to aggrandize himself in the media after the high-profile arrest of Kauffman, a doctor charged with killing his wife, April, a radio personality. It said Tyner violated state ethics rules by giving an interview about the case to ABC’s 20/20. The prosecution team in the Kauffman case, the suit notes, included only men.
In the Kaufman case, the suit says, prosecutors withheld from defense lawyers information about internal investigations involving two detectives assigned to the case as well as questions about the conduct of a police officer involved in the investigation.
The suit also accuses Tyner’s office of quashing a 2017 aggravated assault and weapons case against a man with connections to the Democratic Party in Atlantic City. And last year, the suit says, the Prosecutor’s Office declined to press charges against a lawyer who tried to bring marijuana into the local jail because the lawyer was a brother of a friend of Tyner’s.
According to the suit, Tyner rewarded his brother with a $50,000-a-year job as an agent, paying him $20,000 more than the starting salary. Others with personal connections to Tyner were hired as well, the suit said.
All the while, the lawsuit alleges, Tyner ignored complaints of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the office. Ruberton said she was devastated when she was fired.
“I went to law school to become a prosecutor,” she said. “That was my dream.”