TEWKSBURY – The township’s tax assessor has filed a lawsuit against current and former township officials claiming they sought to classify properties as farmland to in an attempt to improperly receive tax breaks.
Anna-Maria Obiedzinski alleges she was retaliated against after blowing the whistle on the scheme, according to her lawsuit filed Oct. 19 in state Superior Court in Hunterdon County.
Her lawsuit names as defendants Hunterdon County, Tewksbury and the township committee.
Also named as defendants are former mayor Louis DiMare, Jesse Landon, the former township administrator; Committeeman Robert Becker; Mayor Peter Melick; and the current township administrator, James Barberio.
Obiedzinski claims she was subjected to repeated retaliation for objecting to the officials' "fraudulent tax scheme" and her termination was pursued by the township after she tried to expose the scheme, while the officials sought to "cover it up," according to the lawsuit.
The officials have "repeatedly attempted to have their unqualified properties designated as 'farmland,' allowing them to take improper property tax breaks and shifting that tax burden to other county residents," according to the lawsuit.
Obiedzinski, through her role as a tax assessor in Tewksbury, has been "an unwavering roadblock" to the officials' efforts to "utilize political influence and abuse their powers to illicitly obtain favorable tax treatment for themselves (or their friends)."
Justin Marchetta, Tewksbury's township attorney, said the township is currently reviewing Obiedzinski’s allegations and "has no further comment at this time."
Obiedzinski's attorneys, Matthew Luber and Armen McOmber of McOmber McOmber & Luber, said that the retaliation their client was forced to endure was "egregious."
“As alleged in the complaint, Mrs. Obiedzinski was subjected to repeated and egregious retaliation for refusing to capitulate to Defendants’ efforts to cheat the system and use their political office for personal gain," Luber said in a statement. "My client looks forward to her day in court and further exposing this often embattled administration.”
Her lawsuit also claims Tewksbury officials sent her a separation agreement asking her to resign and waive her right to sue in court for wrongful termination. She refused to sign the agreement, which called for her to get $3,000 in severance, but she refused and continued with her duties.
Obiedzinski, of Chester, was hired as a tax assessor in Tewksbury in 2007.
Her awareness of the officials’ alleged fraudulent tax evasion schemes stemmed from her concerns over farmland assessments in Tewksbury.
To qualify for a farmland assessment, which results in a reduction of property taxes, the land must have been actively devoted to its agricultural use for at least two consecutive years prior to the year of its farmland assessment.
Additionally, the owner of the land must apply annually for farmland assessment with the municipal tax assessor on or before Aug. 1 of the year before the property was assessed.
In 2013, New Jersey enacted a law making it tougher to qualify for a preferential farmland property tax assessment to weed out “fake farmers,” according to the lawsuit.
Shortly after Obiedzinski began working in Tewksbury, she noticed that certain properties were designated as farmland, but their applications were missing from Tewksbury’s files.
Without an application on file, there is no evidence that the specific property ever qualified for a farmland assessment, meaning a farmland assessment is "fraudulent and a legal nullity," according to the lawsuit.
In February 2008, Obiedzinski sent a letter to Landon, Tewksbury's former administrator, notifying him of the “missing” applications for the properties.
Instead of commending her for pointing out irregularities, Obiedzinski’s letter to Landon paved the way for a series of retaliatory actions, according to the lawsuit.
She also sent a letter to the township's chief financial officer, Judy McGrory, requesting help in addressing farmland inspections and the farmland inspection program.
Tewksbury then began a farmland inspection program in 2009.
From 2009 through 2014, Obiedzinski inspected hundreds of properties through a self-funded inspection program.
As the township began conducting more inspections, inspection fee invoices were generated and sent to Tewksbury officials, and letters detailing inspection fees of $25 were distributed to township taxpayers at the beginning of each three-year cycle.
Initially, she did not receive any opposition to the farmland inspection program from the officials or other property owners.
But after DiMare, who was mayor at the time, received a phone call from a taxpayer who complained to him about the $25 inspection fee, he became "incensed" about the inspection program.
DiMare directed his anger and retaliation at Obiedzinski, according to the lawsuit.
In 2013 and 2019, Becker and his wife appealed their property tax assessment when the farmland requirements were not met.
Both Becker and DiMare — who, according to the lawsuit, are close and personal friends — were infuriated with Obiedzinski for not settling the county tax appeal.
But Obiedzinski was only exercising her duty as a tax assessor when she determined, based on the application, that Becker and his wife’s property did not meet the necessary qualifications and denied the farmland assessment.
Shortly after, Becker and DiMare "conspired to interfere" with the property tax assessment and retaliate against Obiedzinski, the lawsuit alleges.
Becker and DiMare expected to "receive favorable tax treatment," rather than to be treated like any other citizen, according to the lawsuit.
In his first attempt to influence Obiedzinski from carrying out her duties, DiMare insisted that Obiedzinski reach out to Becker and his wife about their appeal, according to the lawsuit.
Obiedzinski reported the incident to the township and complained that Becker and DiMare were "unlawfully attempting to interfere with her duties and to use political influence" to improperly settle the tax appeal.
In response, DiMare sent a "scathing email" to numerous township officials asserting “personnel issues” and characterizing Obiedzinski's complaint as a “missive,” according to the lawsuit.
Then, in June 2015, Obiedzinski received an email from the township's chief financial officer alerting her that the Tewksbury Township Committee no longer wanted to pay her for farmland inspections.
The self-funded farmland inspection program that Obiedzinski initiated was "suddenly terminated" after six years.
In January 2020, Obiedzinski logged 70 hours of work, which she sought compensation for but was denied, according to the lawsuit.
In August 2020, Barberio called Obiedzinski to inform her that she was to receive a notice of discipline and was slated for termination, stating that she had failed as a tax assessor.
The next month, she received a copy of the township's complaint to the state Division of Taxation seeking a hearing to support her removal.
Her lawsuit alleges that Tewksbury and the township officials violated the state Conscientious Employee Protection Act, which aims to protect employees who whistle blow corruption or malfeasance.
Obiedzinski, who also serves as assessor in High Bridge, is seeking punitive damages and other relief deemed by the court, along with legal fees and costs of the lawsuit.
Email: [email protected]
Nick Muscavage is a watchdog reporter for the Courier News, Home News Tribune and MyCentralJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his investigative work that has exposed wrongdoing and changed state law, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.