This is a true story. The names have not been changed and facts have not been exaggerated.
It is special interest politics at its worst. Designed to put the public at risk to financially reward a small group of politicians, bureaucrats and consultants while gouging the taxpayer.
It starts with Sussex County’s newest Freeholder, Herb Yardley and includes Yardley’s freeholder candidate Josh Hertzberg.
Before becoming a freeholder, Yardley was the Sussex County Health Department Director for many years, retiring in 2015. Yardley left the same day as County Administrator John Eskilson, County Counsel Dennis McConnell and County Treasurer Bernard Re. The abrupt exit by all of these executives was precipitated by a county scandal that surrounded the disastrous solar program that cost the county millions.
Yardley was not involved with the solar project, but was angry at the administration, particularly Eskilson for some time. He had made plans to retire before Eskilson surprised everyone by retiring himself with only a few weeks’ notice.
According to inside sources, Sussex County government from 2013 through 2017 was a roller coaster ride of insidious inside office politics that rewarded a few to the detriment of most. Yardley’s anger was poised primarily around his lack of departmental autonomy. He seethed at Eskilson’s interference and lack of respect.
“Herb was not above going around his boss or going outside the chain of command to get his way.”
When Yardley began at the Sussex County Health Department he reported to the Administrator for Health and Human Services, Steven Gruchacz. His relationship with Gruchacz was tumultuous and disagreements were many. The situation deteriorated to the point that Yardley exerted outside pressure from sitting freeholders, including then Freeholder Steven Oroho to spin the Health Department off to an autonomous division. This provided Yardley with the platform to grow the Health Department into a county wide system.
Sussex County Health Department
Previously, several towns, including Vernon and Sparta operated their own departments and engaged in shared service agreements with other municipalities within the county. Yardley spearheaded an effort to bring all 24 towns in the county into the same Health Department. With the use of marketing and grant writing the department grew to handle all inspections and enforcement as well as compliance with state requirements of the County Environmental Health Act (CEHA).
According to the Sussex County website the new department, as it exists today includes the following:
- Administrative Services
- Office of Environmental Health
- County Environmental Health Act (CEHA )
- Hazardous Materials (HAZ-MAT) program
- Clean Communities
- Emergency Preparedness Program
- Sussex Warren Chronic Disease Coalition
- Office of Public Health Nursing
- Special Child Health Services
- Office of Mosquito Control
- Office of Weights and Measures
On the surface all was going well, but growing pains were becoming evident as Eskilson began to interfere in Yardley’s domain, and once again, Yardley became dissatisfied and started complaining to the freeholders. According to sources within the county, the relationship between the two men broke down to shouting matches with Eskilson belittling Yardley both privately and publicly. Yardley had enough, and, again according to sources, filed his retirement papers for June 30, 2015. This would be a fateful move because the rest of the administrators left the same day. The retirement, although planned did not have a viable succession plan in place which created a poor administrative situation at the Health Department.
Enter Steve Gruchacz
The county administration went into a free fall around August 2014, but the true effects became painfully evident in May of 2015. At that point the budget, retirements and political hostilities were raised to a fever pitch as Freeholders disagreed on how to deal with the Solar program that had now risen to a full-blown multi-million-dollar scandal.
The Freeholder Board Director for 2015 was supposed to be Freeholder Dennis Mudrick, but at the last minute a power grab was orchestrated with Freeholders Vohden, Crabb and Administrator Eskilson, that would ensure that all power and information would be controlled within a very tight group. Eskilson assumed full control of the county, plus he took control of the Freeholder Board by being named the Clerk of the Board. This move allowed him to control all information to and from the freeholders. The move was also designed to keep Freeholders Gail Phoebus and George Graham from getting information or gaining a leadership role on the board.
When Eskilson announced his retirement, a succession plan was adopted by the power group to put in Human Services Director Steven Gruchacz as County Administrator. The inside deal would assure that Phoebus and Graham would be shut out completely. The interview process, was described as a sham by inside sources, which was repeated for County Counsel and County Treasurer. The elevation of Gruchacz infuriated Yardley and any question of postponing his retirement was extinguished. Thus, began Steve Gruchacz‘ quest to destroy Yardley’s legacy.
But Yardley had plans of his own that he had been acting on for some time, as did Eskilson. Greed, anger, and animosity would lead to an untenable situation for the next couple of years as the three former colleagues, Yardley, Eskilson and Gruchacz would play out a mutually destructive pursuit to destroy anything in their path for fun and for profit.
Herb Yardley is a political guy. He likes to schmooze and he likes to float stories, just to see how far they will go. But Herb is also a Health Department guy and has shown a career long dedication to proper Health policy. As he moved towards a very lucrative retirement he began his own “health department orientated private consulting business” to operate after retirement. He also began to plan how to use his legacy at Sussex County to enter into a new chapter in his career.
Sussex County was awarded a grant to allow the Sussex County Health Department full accreditation, a move that would be beneficial to the county, but would also potentially allow Yardley to consult further down the road, particularly to outside towns to achieve their own accreditation. Utilizing the grant Yardley hired another consultant to achieve this goal, Steven Levinson.
Enter Steve Levinson
Steve Levinson is also a health policy guy, but from every indication, far shrewder than Yardley. Levinson began consulting for Sussex County while simultaneously consulting for Sparta Township. This gave Levinson the ability to audit everything that the county Health Department was doing right, and also what Sussex County was doing wrong. But Levinson was smart, he the kept the inside information to himself. Especially when he found out that the county had made an error years ago when setting up a county-wide health tax.
County Health services are split into two categories, Health Services that are paid for by municipalities and what is referred to as CEHA, County Environmental Health Act. These are services that are required by every county to provide. In other words, the county taxes should have been roughly half determined as a dedicated tax, and half as part of the county taxes. Levinson saw his opportunity, he told Sparta that he could save them hundreds of thousands of dollars that he knew were wrongly applied. The dollars for the county would be affected greatly if they moved fast, so Levinson went to Josh Hertzberg who was looking to make a name for himself and gave him the story, well …half the story.
At the same time, Freeholder Vohden tried to arrange for a family friend to take over the Health Department. Vohden’s play was probably the most politically unethical.
He and Eskilson tried to engineer a takeover of the Health Department by the Morris County municipality of Pequannock, a township of approximately 15,000. Vohden deceived the Freeholder Board and the public by keeping his actions a secret and by lying about who he was dealing with. He concocted false agendas that named Passaic County as the department he was dealing with.
But it was a lie.
Vohden’s plan was outed by Crabb and Gruchacz to county employees that passed the word around weeks before it was announced. Also, according to sources in Pequannock, information was freely passed inside town ahead of any agreement and freeholders in Sussex were contacted informally.
Pequannock had a health department of approximately 8 people. Their Director, Pete Correale was a seasoned Health Officer with connections. He lived in Wantage, was getting close to retirement, and was growing weary of commuting to Pequannock every day. Correale was already making more that the Sussex County director was making, so it would be unreasonable to take a county job. So, what to do.
Vohden’s plan was to allow Pequannock to take over Sussex County in a shared service agreement. Correale would get a big boost in pay and he would not have to commute all the way to Pequannock every day, and after a few years Correale would have a big pension bump!
But it required that Sussex merge their Health and Human Services departments again. It also required a big promotion for an employee with no education, certifications or experience. Vohden and Eskilson’s plan was a big win for insider crony politics at it’s worst. It would also solve a sticky problem for Eskilson.
But Phil Crabb, as usual, spilled the plan early on and it was stopped by Graham and Yardley. Vohden was livid and proceeded to attack Graham at every opportunity including an attempt to censure the freeholder publicly. But from our investigation and research, Vohden and Eskilson both crossed the ethical line by promoting friends to reward relationships.
Back to Steve Levinson
As this was going on, Levinson was gaining traction. He began to bombard Sussex County with massive OPRA requests of all County Health Department records, focusing on the confidential information that he had acquired during his consulting engagement with the county.
Gruchacz was making things worse on all fronts by deliberately ignoring calls from Levinson and Sparta Town Manager Bill Close as well as the press. Gruchacz, according to reliable sources, also did not inform the acting Health Director, Emrick Seabold or the Freeholder Board of any major issues with Sparta. In fact, the Freeholder Board was not made fully aware of issues until Bruce Scruton of the NJ Herald began compiling a story about Sparta getting ready to leave the department.
Levinson’s plan was to feather his consulting nest by creating a Sparta Health Department. His plan was to use another municipality, we are reliably told that Rockaway Township in Morris was approached, to handle day-to-day inspections while collecting a sizable salary to manage a single employee in Sparta. Levinson’s plan hinged on Sussex County not being aware of the Health Tax breakdown issue. If Sparta could disengage from Sussex before they were aware of the tax rate discrepancy, the county would be on the hook for about $200,000 that Levinson could use as a fee boost and also show some savings for Sparta.
But, Levinson appears to be incredibly dishonest in his approach. He was legitimately engaged and compensated by the county to review all records and policies to achieve accreditation, instead he used inside knowledge of both Sussex County and Sparta Township to his own benefit.
Did greedy Stevie Levinson use confidential information for his own financial gain to the detriment of Sparta Township and Sussex County?
Why did this all happen?
It appears that the issue was purposefully mishandled by the administration for a several reasons.
- It was personal: Eskilson wanted to embarrass Yardley and to also provide a “special employee” with a gifted promotion that threatened the county for his own purposes.
- Gruchacz also wanted to embarrass Yardley and Seabold by overseeing the dismantling of the department as Yardley left it.
- It was financial: Yardley wanted to enhance his substantial retirement income with a consulting contract with either the county or individual municipalities to provide Health Services.
- It was unethical: Vohden tried to play patronage boss by giving a close family friend a promotion that would have jeopardized health services and cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars.
- It was political: Sparta was somewhat unwittingly being used by Levinson to advance his own financial agenda using inside information to reward himself with a lucrative consulting contract.
- Josh Hertzberg was ambitious and was willing to jeopardize the county health department to advance his career.
Sussex County Health Department Today
Today the Sussex County Health Department appears to be better managed than it has been in years.
- Gone is Herb Yardley’s glad-handing selective relationships and Eskilson’s demoralizing management of the department.
- Gruchacz retired after less than 10 months as county administrator. Acting Health Director Emrick Seabold retired soon after.
- Pequannock was supposed to make a presentation to the Freeholder Board but never showed up or pursued Vohden’s concocted plan.
- Sussex County did in fact correct the county CEHA tax structure to accurately reflect the county requirements and the Health services requirements.
- Steve Levinson is still retained by Sparta Township. According to sources, the county is looking into his consulting contract to determine if he can be held accountable for using inside information that cost the county thousands of dollars in time and effort.
The ethics violations in this epic tale of crony politics is chilling. The health standards of an entire county were put in jeopardy for the greedy intentions of consulting bureaucrats and ethically challenged politicians.
At the very least, Levinson should be held accountable for violating contractual agreements and ethical standards.