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Lauren Guastella. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

Somerset Republicans raise alarms over hiring of politically-connected communications staffer

Somerset County Democratic Committee digital media chair hired for county job without competition

By Nikita Biryukov, April 22 2020 12:01 am

Republican freeholders in Somerset County are raising alarms over the hiring of a communications staffer with ties to their Democratic colleagues.

In a party-line vote held last week, the Freeholder Board voted to bring on Lauren Guastella as a digital media specialist over complaints about a hurried and opaque process from the board’s two Republican members.

“There was never a solicitation outside. It was never posted. It was never advertised,” Freeholder Brian Gallagher said. “So I asked the question ‘how many people were interviewed,’ and it was one. If you’re interviewing a party of one, guess what the results are?”

Guastella is digital media chair of the Somerset County Democratic Committee and, according to a copy of her resume obtained by the New Jersey Globe, she managed online presence for Freeholder Melonie Marano and Sheriff Darrin Russo’s 2019 campaign.

Marano and the board’s two other Democrats, Freeholder Director Shanel Robinson and Deputy Director Sara Sooy, voted to hire Guastella.

The hiree’s ties to the Democratic lawmakers set of alarm bells and claims of political patronage among the board’s Republicans.

“People are using the crisis to make political appointments and political agendas,” Freeholder Brian Levine said. “That’s what really disturbs and disgusts me.”

Sooy did not immediately return a 7:05 p.m. call and voicemail seeking comment.

Robinson did not immediately return a call and voicemail seeking comment made at 7:23 p.m.

During the April 14 meeting, the Democrats pointed to the pandemic as a reason for expanding the county’s ability to communicate with press and residents digitally.

“We needed to get the message out, and it just was not gelling together. I can tell you as late as last week, a constituent emailed me pressing the issue about a testing site,” Robinson said during the meeting. “We have put press releases, and there were press releases out there about the 35,000 masks being diverted or being intercepted by the federal government. This person had no idea, which means they’re not looking at the press releases. This person, I can tell you, was looking at social media.”

Further complicating the controversy around Guastella’s hiring is a consent order issued by the Department of Banking and Insurance in January 2015.

That order revoked Guastella’s insurance provider license and barred her from applying for such a license for five years after she admitted to forging the names of three policy holders on insurance forms that she later filed.

Gallagher and Levine said they were unaware of the order, which has since lapsed, when the board voted to hire Guastella.

“Look, none of us live a pristine life — some of us less pristine than others — but I think it should’ve come up,” Levine said.

It’s not clear whether the Democratic freeholders knew of the order before the vote.

The controversy likely won’t go anywhere in the short term with the specter of COVID-19 still hanging over New Jersey, but Gallagher said he doesn’t intend to forget about it.

“My attitude is this is not the end of this issue, but the time right now is to focus on this pandemic,” he said. “This is going to resurface again, and it’s going to become an issue because I think this was done extremely poorly.”

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