Update: Hamilton Township Mayor Kelly Yaede released a statement 3 p.m. July 16 responding to the state’s allegations against township health officer Jeff Plunkett detailed in the original version of this story. Later, at 4:15 p.m. July 16, Yaede and business administrator Dave Kenny called this publication to add further information and request a correction be made to distinguish between the official health code and the state’s best practices appendix. The correction has been made, and their comments have been added to the original version of this article.
The New Jersey Department of Health notified embattled Hamilton Township health officer Jeff Plunkett last week of its intent to revoke his license, citing a failure to ensure safe and sanitary conditions at restaurants and the animal shelter in the township.
DOH local public health director Shereen Semple laid out the case against Plunkett across five pages, listing numerous complaints in a July 10, 2019 letter. DOH says Plunkett failed to inspect restaurants annually, and misled the public about the frequency of those inspections. It also alleges that Plunkett never inspected the township animal shelter before issuing its annual license, a charge that has been echoed in several other governmental investigations released in recent months.
“The above investigative findings evidence that you grossly failed to discharge your duties as health officer,” Semple wrote, later concluding, “Because the violations are serious and place animals and public health, safety and welfare at risk, the Department intends to revoke your health officer license.”
Plunkett has until Aug. 9 to appeal the decision. Without an appeal, Plunkett will lose his license, and would no longer be able to do his job as township health officer.
DOH opened an investigation into Plunkett after receiving a complaint in September 2018 about his handling of the township animal shelter. Semple says Plunkett delayed the investigation for weeks, dodging requests to be interviewed by DOH staff from Oct. 17 until Nov. 5, 2018. Upon responding to DOH, Plunkett said he could not provide documentation requested by the state because it did not exist. Later, DOH Office of Local Public Health investigators discovered that Plunkett admitted the shelter had never been inspected by the township health division.
During the course of the state investigation, DOH received another complaint regarding Plunkett—this one alleging Plunkett failed to annually inspect restaurants in the township before issuing licenses. DOH found this allegation to be true using the township’s restaurant safety database, available for public use on the township website. Searches showed most restaurant inspections were not current, with many last conducted in 2017.
OLPH investigators later visited three township restaurants, and witnessed current 2019 licenses signed by Plunkett displayed on the premises. However, records showed two of the restaurants hadn’t had a sanitary inspection report filed by the township in two years, with the other last inspected in 2018.
Hamilton Township Mayor Kelly Yaede, in a statement, said DOH’s argument is misleading, and that state and township code do not explicitly require a restaurant be inspected annually. Instead, she said, it is the township’s understanding that the health department may inspect a restaurant as often as it deems necessary.
DOH code does include an appendix of best practices, including one listed under “food surveillance” that recommends the local board of health inspect retail food establishments at least once a year. Hamilton Township business administrator Dave Kenny said, in a phone call with Communitynews.org, this is just a guideline and not something required of the township.
Plunkett admitted to state investigators that he did not ensure annual inspections of all retail food establishments prior to renewing their licenses each year. Plunkett told DOH the township did not have enough staff to keep up with annual inspections, and hadn’t for 40 years.
The state took Plunkett to task for this, specifically because Plunkett said in December 2014 that the township inspects every restaurant in Hamilton twice a year. Plunkett made this statement during a period of heightened public concern in the sanitary conditions of the township restaurants, shortly after a Hepatitis-A outbreak originated from an infected food handler at Rosa’s Restaurant in Hamilton.
The OLPH also alleges that Plunkett misled the public in 2014 about the township’s efforts at Rosa’s, with the state saying the township health division only inspected the restaurant after the Hepatitis-A outbreak. Yaede disputed this, claiming Hamilton Township inspected Rosa’s four times that year before that incident, including twice in October 2014.
Yaede also said, in a phone call with Communitynews.org, that Plunkett told the township board of health as recently as February of this year that every attempt is made to inspect “major facilities” within the township every year. But Yaede said Plunkett had been open about the difficulties he faced with the current staffing levels to inspect every facility every year. She suggested blame rests partially on the health code classifying any business selling food items as a retail food establishment that must be inspected. This would include a large number of businesses in the township, including ones like Home Depot or Lowe’s that sell candy in check-out areas.
“These are some of most egregious, false statements being made by Governor Murphy’s State Department of Health,” Yaede said in her statement. “These false statements will only undermine public confidence, are detrimental to all public employees, and will undoubtedly impact our local Hamilton business community.”
Yet, the DOH investigation is only the latest inquiry involving Plunkett and his work as township health officer.
Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo J. Onofri announced May 3 that Plunkett, 62, and Todd Bencivengo, 56, each had been charged with two counts of third-degree animal cruelty and one count of second-degree official misconduct. Bencivengo retired in March as the supervisor of the Hamilton Township Animal Shelter.
The prosecutor’s Humane Law Enforcement Unit began an investigation in August 2018 after two complaints were referred to the office by the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice. The investigation revealed that approximately 236 cats and 93 dogs were euthanized between 2016 and 2018 before the waiting period required by state law. State law says shelters must hold animals or offer them for adoption for at least seven days.
Then, on May 7, an investigative subcommittee led by Republican councilwoman Ileana Schirmer and Democratic councilman Rick Tighe released a 43-page investigative report on the shelter that depicted a facility run without rules or oversight. This lackadaisical approach, the report suggested, allowed animals to be euthanized in an inhumane and occasionally illegal manner. The shelter had expired medication, no scale to weigh large dogs, little in the way of record keeping or employee training and rooms where the heating, air conditioning and ventilation didn’t work properly. The report placed the blame on several administration officials, most prominently Plunkett and Bencivengo.
In the aftermath, Plunkett resigned from his position as director of health and recreation in June. But he remained as Hamilton’s health officer, a position he has held since 1995. Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede appointed Plunkett in 2016 to serve in a dual role as health officer and director of health and recreation.
Plunkett has been a licensed health officer in New Jersey since 1987.