The state quietly agreed to settle a little-known lawsuit that claimed Public Defender Yvonne Segars improperly fired a deputy for political reasons, three weeks before Gov. Jon S. Corzine announced plans to nominate Segars to be a Superior Court judge.
The state has agreed to pay $250,000 to former deputy public defender Christine Leone-Zwillinger, who was a supervisor in a unit that represented children who were abused and neglected, until Segars became public defender under Gov. James E. McGreevey in September 2002.
Within a month, Leone-Zwillinger, 57, of Cherry Hill, who had run for Camden County sheriff as a Republican in 1997, was fired by Segars, even though her position did not involve policy-making or require her to be of the same party as the governor, the 2004 federal suit claims.
"Upon information and belief, defendant Segars made the decision to terminate plaintiff at the request of defendant McGreevey, or those acting on his behalf, on account of plaintiff's affiliation with the Republican party and to do a "political favor' for the governor in order to make room for John (Doran), Esq., who is a Democrat," the suit says.
The suit also claims Leone-Zwillinger got an "exceptional" rating — 28 of 30 points — on her last performance review and that Doran's qualifications were "vastly inferior."
In April 2007, U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson dismissed McGreevey and the Office of Public Defender from the suit, leaving Segars as the sole defendant. Court records indicate the case was settled Feb. 1 — 20 days before Corzine filed a notice of intent to nominate Segars, 52, of Ridgewood, for the Superior Court in Bergen County.
Both Segars and Doran declined comment through a spokesman, who referred all questions to Corzine's office, which citing confidentiality reasons refused to say whether Segars disclosed the matter on her nomination questionnaire or whether she was deemed qualified by a panel of the New Jersey State Bar Association.
The chairman of that review panel, Ralph J. Lamparello, said the committee cannot discuss its confidential reviews of potential judges and prosecutors. Even members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must approve appointments, don't learn whether a candidate is deemed qualified unless the bar association chooses to testify against a candidate a governor nominated despite being deemed unfit by the bar association.
Corzine spokesman Jim Gardner said the administration was aware of the lawsuit but unconcerned about it.
"The office is well aware of this legal matter because it is a matter of public record and is being handled by (the Department of) Law and Public Safety," Gardner said.
Asked why the state would settle the suit as it neared trial after more than three years in litigation, David Wald, a spokesman for the Department of Law and Public Safety, said "We thought this was a fair and reasonable settlement."
Chris Farella, the state-paid private lawyer retained to represent Segars, did not return calls for comment. The state has paid his firm $31,301 to defend the suit in 2005 and 2006. The Office of the Attorney General could not provide cost figures for 2004 and for 2007 through the present.
Richard M. Schall, Leone-Zwillinger's lawyer, declined comment until the settlement is signed, which he expected to happen in a week.