How Ocean County Sheriff Silently Created New “Special Investigator” Unit Full of Crony Hires

10 mins read

TOMS RIVER, NJ – Since taking office in 2014, Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy has used a loophole in the state law to amass a small private police force within his department full of friends and political allies and retired police officers. Those jobs were created outside the realm of the standard civil service laws for police officers and are non-union jobs outside of the financial purview of the annual budget of Ocean County.

As the Federal Bureau of Investigation probes Ocean County and the Ocean County Board of Commissioners’ political hiring practices for public jobs, one of the possible hiring practices being investigated could be that of Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy.

This month, Mastronardy has been under fire after Commissioner Virginia Haines publicly admitted it was the sheriff and not her, seeking to place now-retired New Jersey State Police Trooper Tristin Collins to a six-figure salary as the assistant business administrator. Days after Shore News Network broke the news of the crony hire; we learned the FBI had subpoenaed hundreds of documents from the county related to the hiring practices by the commissioners.

On Thursday, Shore News Network obtained more information regarding suspicious hirings at the Ocean County Sheriff’s Department.

Those hirings, called “sheriff’s investigators” are a private police force hired directly by Sheriff Mastronardy that now includes 22 at-will officers that serve under Mastronardy at his will. That’s more officers than most smalltown police departments across New Jersey. It also comes during a time when the progressive bail reform act is emptying ocean County’s jail. and COVID-19.

Prior to Mastronardy’s time in office, under the administration of the now-deceased former sheriff, William Polhemus, the county did not hire any sheriff’s investigators.

Polhemus had zero special investigators on his payroll.

In 2016, two years after taking office, Mastronardy hired his first special investigator. Over the next six years, he grew his private internal police force to 23 officers at its peak in February.

The list of special investigators includes family members of influential local business owners, retired employees that served under Mastronardy during his tenure as the Toms River Chief of Police, and close allies and friends of the sheriff.

The FBI’s Red Bank field office did not respond for comment about the sheriff’s growing investigative wing that now is in violation of New Jersey state law, but is aware of the hirings. It did not say whether or not those hirings are part of their countywide employment probe.

A document was released by Ocean County Sheriff’s Department under the Open Public Records Act.

New Jersey state law allows the Sheriff to hire up to 15% of his sworn officers as at-will investigators under Title 40A:9-117a. There are 131 sworn civil service officers within the Sheriff’s department, which means Mastronardy is legally only allowed to hire 19 officers outside of the civil service realm.

We reached out to Mastronardy on Friday, but he did not respond to our questions about the special investigators on staff exceeding the state limit. Ocean County Administrator Carl Block, Assistant Administrator Michael Fiure, and Commissioner Jack Kelly, Direct of Law and Public Safety that oversees the Sheriff’s Department on the Board of Commissioners, also did not respond to questions by Shore News Network on Friday.

“The sheriff of each county may appoint a number of persons, not to exceed 15% of the total number of sheriff’s officers employed by the sheriff and set forth in the sheriff’s table of organization in the county budget, to the position of sheriff’s investigator. All sheriff’s investigators shall serve at the pleasure of the sheriff making their appointment and shall be included in the unclassified service of the civil service,” the law states. “A sheriff’s investigator appointed pursuant to this section shall have the same compensation, benefits, powers, and police officer status as is granted to sheriff’s officers. The duties of sheriff’s investigators shall be law enforcement investigations and related duties. A person appointed to the position of sheriff’s investigator shall, within 18 months of appointment, complete a police training course at an approved school and receive certification by the Police Training Commission as provided in P.L.1961, c. 56 (C. 52:17B-66 et seq.). The implementation of this act shall not result in the layoff of permanent sheriff’s officers.”

The two dozen special investigators each earn $44,000 annual salaries, plus medical benefits, according to documents released by the county through an Open Public Records Act request, totaling over $1,000,000 in combined annual salaries.

Two of those officers earn $58,000 per year. These positions are non-union officers with the full powers of a sheriff’s officer.

This loophole in the state law allows Mastronardy to hire officers outside of the civil service lists, and special investigators do not need to meet the same state guidelines as regular police officers to be hired. There is no state test, no residency requirement, and no age requirement. All special investigators must be Police Training Commission (PTC) certified within 18 months of being hired, which means they do not have to attend a police academy in order to get the job as a sworn officers within the Sheriff’s Department.

Document released by Ocean County Sheriff’s Department under the Open Public Records Act.

The FBI requested the Ocean County Commissioners’ “Blue Books” logs that were kept until 2019 of the personal hiring suggestions of the Ocean County Commissioners in a subpoena served back in March. These special investigator hiring spreadsheets released by the county this week are essentially the sheriff’s own “Blue Book”.

Those county blue books were required by former county human resources director Keith Goetting. When Goetting left the county in 2019, the county commissioners ceased using those blue books.

According to Ocean County, in order to be a sworn officer outside of the Sheriff’s special investigator’s unit, applicants must take a written civil service test, have a background check, pass a physical agility test, psychological exam and pass a drug medical and drug screening process.

Additionally, regular sworn officers must be residents of Ocean County and be a member of PBA Local #379. Special investigators only need to have an inside track with the sheriff.

On Friday, as we continue our own investigation into the possibly nefarious hiring practices at the highest levels in Ocean County, we request, through the Open Public Records Act, resumes of all special investigators and job descriptions. The county has yet to reply.

The FBI investigation into Ocean County also comes as Toms River Mayor Maurice Hill, a close political friend, and ally of Mastronardy, hired another “Good Old Boy” from their club of political insiders to a $100,000 per year job, when factoring in benefits, to former Councilwoman Maria Maruca. Maruca, who was rejected by voters in 2021 during her bid for re-election has lost her other crony appointment job at the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission and was hired by Hill and four members of the township council on Wednesday.

During the township council meeting, Council President Kevin Geohegan said he was not afraid of the ongoing FBI investigations into the politically motivated hiring practices within Ocean County.

This year, Mastronardy has indicated that he intends to run for both sheriff and chairman of the Ocean County GOP, a position that would grant him access and influence to give even more public jobs across Ocean County. As GOP chairman, Mastronardy would also wield power to convince the Ocean County Board of Commissioners to build his desired new 60,000 square foot sheriff’s department headquarters on Motts Place in Downtown Toms River.

Except for exceeding the state limit, under the law in New Jersey, Mastronardy is allowed to hire these officers and while no crimes have been committed, if any of those jobs were provided as political favors, paybacks or in return for political support or other personally beneficial means, it would be a violation of the law.