An Essex County jury has returned a no-cause verdict in a civil suit, clearing Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss on a claim that he sexually assaulted and harassed a city employee. The jury ordered his accuser to pay $7,000 on a counterclaim for defamation.
The jury rejected claims by city housing inspector Tamara Smith that Vauss sexually assaulted her in her City Hall office on June 9, 2014. The verdict was issued Aug. 8, following a two-week trial before Superior Court Judge Robert Gardner.
The jury also rejected Smith’s claims that Vauss sexually harassed her by making unwelcome romantic overtures on numerous occasions in 2013 and 2014. Her claims of vicarious liability against the city were also rejected by the jury.
On Vauss’ counterclaim for defamation, the jury rejected the claim that Smith made false statements about him in a letter she sent to a local newspaper, which was not published. But the jury found Vauss had been defamed by statements that Smith made about him to co-workers at Irvington’s City Hall.
The alleged assault was reported to authorities but the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office did not bring charges, said Christopher Kinum, the lawyer for Vauss.
Smith claimed that Vauss cornered her in her office, had sex with her and masturbated, then used a paper towel to clean himself, Kinum said. But, Kinum said, she testified that she threw away the paper towel the next day.
Smith also testified that Vauss sexually assaulted her another time, nine years earlier, but neither incident was corroborated, said Kinum.
The defense focused on Smith’s credibility, presenting expert testimony that she was delusional and showed signs of major depression with psychosis.
The defense also presented evidence that an unsigned letter sent to the Irvington Herald newspaper, which accused Vauss and his wife of drug use and having city employees perform maintenance on their home, was written by Smith. The expert concluded that Smith sent the letter by comparing its spelling, grammar and syntax to that used in 19 emails sent by Smith.
Kinum said that Smith admitted on cross-examination that she routinely and secretly records her conversations with others at work, using her tablet computer and smartphone to record more than 100 conversations, but she was unable to produce any recordings to corroborate her accusations about Vauss. Smith said she made recordings on her iPhone of interactions with the mayor, but she damaged the phone by dropping it in a toilet, then returned it to her service provider to avoid a fee, according to Kinum.
The defense argued that Smith had a motivation to retaliate against Vauss because he ordered cuts in overtime for city employees and she had earned $15,000 in overtime on top of her $42,000 salary. She also first raised the sexual assault allegations soon after her request for a promotion to code enforcement officer, a title she long sought, was denied, Kinum said.
“Our position is this was a shakedown,” said Kinum, of Critchley, Kinum & DeNoia in Roseland.
Angelo Genova of Genova Burns in Newark, who represented the city in the case, said the trial came down to a determination of the credibility of the plaintiff. “The jury had to decide whether the plaintiff’s story made sense in context,” he said.
The lawyer for Smith, Paul Castronovo of Castronovo & McKinney in Morristown, declined to comment directly on the defense testimony on his client’s mental state or on the letter sent to the newspaper. He said in an email, “We’re confident that, upon appeal, the verdict will be reversed and remanded for a new trial on all counts.”