Angela Santoriello, the former award-winning journalist turned Toms River Township public information officer, who received a six-figure settlement years ago after alleging sexual harassment from Mayor Tom Kelaher, shares her story with Ocean County Politics in this interview.
Angela Santoriello went from being the consummate insider in Ocean County – at one time dating Republican lawyer-politician Greg McGuckin and having worked in Toms River town hall, as the township’s public information officer – to eventually having a falling out with Toms River and Ocean County Republican leaders after she filed suit and received a $140,000 settlement from Toms River for alleged sexual harassment on the part of Mayor Tom Kelaher. This is her story.
Angela Santoriello got on the inside of things in Toms River after she was hired as the township’s public information officer, a newly created position at the time. It began when Mayor Tom Kelaher first took office, after he finished up a term as the Ocean County Prosecutor. A candid Santoriello readily admitted in an interview that the PIO position was created just for her due to political clout.
Mrs. Santoriello told us that her political muscle came from her uncle, Ben Nitti, who was once the owner of a prominent restaurant in Seaside Park. She explained that her uncle Ben used to deliver lunch to political bosses in Trenton twice a week at one point, and eventually came to be acquainted with several political heavyweights, Gilmore being among them. She said that the ease in which she obtained the public job came from the weight that the Nitti name carried in Ocean County, at the time.
“I knew he was a political boss,” Santoriello said of Gilmore. “I knew that my uncle was in the mob, and I knew that that meant that they were friends.”
While working as a journalist, Angela uncovered stories that centered on the activities of several prominent Ocean County Republican leaders, a factor that she said led to her hiring due to the potential of her work being perceived as a threat to the Ocean County political establishment.
That’s when George Gilmore came calling.
Angela told us that her first encounter with the influential Ocean County Republican chairman was while she was writing for the now-defunct Ocean County Observer newspaper, which was eventually taken over by corporate media giant Gannett, the parent company of the Asbury Park Press and other newspapers. The Observer was known for critiquing pay-for-play and other alleged instances of impropriety happening in the county at the time, and George was no fan of its reporting.
Santoriello claimed that Mr. Gilmore would frequently call up to complain about headlines written in the newspaper that referenced him, and she was forced to defer his complaints to her editor, who she said wrote the headlines that offended Gilmore. The regular phone calls, however, allowed the two to become acquaintances, and eventually led to the job offer, which she quickly accepted.
“He knew what he was doing, but I knew what I was doing, too,” she added.
For Angela, taking the job offered to her by Gilmore was an offer she simply could not refuse, given her financial situation. She stated that while working as a reporter at Gannett, she was barely earning more than about $26,000 per year, while on the other hand, the job created for her in Toms River by county Republican leaders saw Santoriello’s pay almost doubled overnight, along with several raises and bonuses she would later receive after being on the job for just a few months as Mayor Kelaher’s spin doctor.
“I had them in the papers, I had Mayor Kelaher featured in stories,” she recalled. As a reward for her work as PIO, she received a $6000 bonus her first year on the job.
“George Gilmore created the public information officer position for me personally,” Santoriello said. “That position never even existed before I came along.”
“I made a deal with Gilmore,” she would later recall. “I sold my soul once to George Gilmore,” she said, the price she paid for taking the township job. But she wouldn’t realize it until later on in her tenure at Toms River.
The Kelaher Years
As Toms River’s public information officer, Santoriello’s job duties included preparing press releases and responding to inquiries from the media, the opposite of what she did during her career as a reporter with the Observer, PolitickerNJ, Asbury Park Press and other outlets. Despite not having a background in PR, she excelled.
She explained that Kelaher did not have much experience dealing with the media at the time he took office, so Republican leaders figured she’d be able to assist him in his new role while working as the township’s new public information officer.
Santoriello said that during her tenure as PIO, she “whitewashed” the Kelaher administration by shaping media coverage along with using her skills to score favorable articles in area media outlets for the Kelaher administration. In the administration’s early days Santoriello was successful in her work, much to her boss’s appreciation, which earned her the favor of the upper echelons of the Ocean County GOP. Santoriello even said that she sat at Gilmore’s table when she attended the wedding of State Senator Christopher Connors’ daughter.
Santoriello recalled that a known foe of hers while employed as public information officer was former police chief and Republican leader Richard “Rick” Clement, who was best remembered for stocking his Oak Avenue police headquarters with alcoholic beverages. Santoriello said that Mayor Kelaher once told her that Mr. Clement repeatedly warned Kelaher that Santoriello would “turn on him.”
Things quickly began to go south between Santoriello and Kelaher after her father tragically committed suicide, Santoriello told us. Devastated and left feeling vulnerable, she alleged in court filings that at time Mayor Kelaher began to take advantage of her and sexually harass her. “That’s when he began to prey on me,” she said.
Santoriello said just a year after the death of her father was when she realized she “sold her soul,” and relations with Kelaher continued to deteriorate since then. According to past media reports, Santoriello accused the mayor of touching her, kissing her and telling her what to wear, among other accusations. For reasons we may never know, the township chose to settle her case rather than take it to trial.
“Clearly, for Toms River to hand me $140,000, something happened,” she said of the settlement she was paid, in consideration of dropping her sexual harassment lawsuit against the township. The six-figure settlement was officially paid out as a workman’s comp claim. She also attributed her sexual harassment case against Mayor Kelaher as ultimately leading to the end of her relationship with Mr. McGuckin, due to his political ties to the involved parties.
She said the key piece of evidence in her case against Toms River was an email and text message exchange between herself and Mayor Kelaher that she said implicated Kelaher. Either way, at that point the township’s attorneys were willing to settle her case for the sum of $140,000, an offer she accepted.
But to Angela, while she said she was disturbed by how she was allegedly treated by Kelaher, she said that the harassment wasn’t even the worst thing she was privy to.
Santoriello said that when the dust was settled with her case, she was left feeling disappointed in Gilmore, despite him having been the person that pulled the strings to create her job in the first place. The former public information officer hoped that Gilmore would have stepped in and acknowledged wrongdoing on the part of Mayor Kelaher, but that never happened. Feeling used when the county Republican chairman wouldn’t stand behind her, she came to the realization that “He [Gilmore] sees every single politician in Ocean County as a means to an end.”
“Every single one.”
“I sold out,” a candid Santoriello admitted. But she changed course and said she thought long and hard, praying and asking God for forgiveness, which gave her motivation to expose what she believed to be corruption in Ocean County politics, producing a series of videos entitled Ocean County Courthouse Confessions, along with raising questions about the death of Randy Appleby, the husband of Ocean County Superior Court Judge Melanie Donohue Appleby.
Angela has since left Ocean County, relocating to Connecticut before coming back and finally settling down in upstate New York along with her husband. Despite having left the state, she says that almost every election season, she inevitably ends up getting contacted by people from Ocean County about political issues, in addition to former Toms River political players occasionally reaching out to her.
“I’m just one story in this huge soup of corruption,” she concluded.