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2019

  • Another Atlantic City mayor has fallen to crime, adding to the city’s long history of corruption. Mayor Frank Gilliam pleaded guilty in federal court to stealing $87,000, intended for his youth basketball club and underprivileged children, and instead spending the money on luxury clothing, expensive meals and trips for himself. The whole scenario fits the Soprano State’s culture of corruption. The mayor resigned after the attorney general moved to boot him from office. Four of the city’s last eight mayors have been arrested on corruption charges, and a third of the city’s nine-member city council from last year was in jail or under house arrest, Associated Press reported. The city has long been known for its mob influence and corrupt officials. In chapters eight and nine of The Soprano State, we take you all the way back to 1929 when Atlantic City’s Ambassador Hotel was headquarters for a mob meeting for Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. The Soprano State brings readers through the time of boss Nucky Johnson, made famous by the HBO series, and into modern times with an exclusive interview with Frank Lentino, the mob connection that led to Atlantic City Mayor Michael Matthew’s extortion conviction. After Gilliam’s guilty plea, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito summed it up: “The people of New Jersey are entitled to better.” Ironically, like many New Jersey officials who head off to jail, Gilliam campaigned for mayor on a “new era” message, The New York Times reported.
    Joe Atmonavage, NJ Advance Media, Oct. 3, 2019; Dan Stamm and David Chang, Associated Press and NBC 10, Oct. 3, 2019; James Barron, The New York Times, Oct. 3, 2019

  • The FBI is investigating New Jersey’s corporate tax break program, adding a federal probe to the state investigation already underway by the state attorney general, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. The scandal has stymied state government with a feud between Gov. Murphy and political boss George Norcross whose affiliated companies were awarded $245 million in tax credits in 2017 for a Camden office tower. At the heart of the probes is the state Economic Development Authority, which a state task force found wasn’t doing its job of making sure those who got the tax breaks met state requirements. The task force found companies were getting the tax breaks by saying they were considering moving out of the state when they had no such intentions. In addition to the Norcross scandal, the New York Times took a look at 12 companies receiving more than $100 million total in tax credits after each threatened to move from New Jersey to the New York office development of Blue Hill Plaza. The Times reported none of the companies moved to New York, and none of them seriously considered it.
    Jeremy Roebuck, Andrew Seidman and Catherine Dunn, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 26, 2019; Nick Corasaniti and Matthew Haag, The New York Times, Sept. 24, 2019

  • Pension plans for New Jersey’s public workers are the worst funded in the nation, according to an S&P rating reported by NJ Advance Media. The rating is no surprise. In Chapter Two of The Soprano State, “Lots of Power, Less Common Sense,” you find governors of both political parties who have underfunded the pension plan for decades. In fiscal year 2018, the pension fund had only enough money to cover 38 percent of what’s needed for 800,000 current and future retired workers, NJ Advance Media reported. The state is paying 70 percent of what it would take to make the plan whole. The unfunded liability gap is $130 billion. The trick governors have used over the years is to overestimate the amount the fund will earn, thereby reducing the contribution amount. It is interesting to note that nearby New York State’s pension system is 99 percent funded.
    Samantha Marcus, NJ Advance Media, Sept. 25, 2019

  • Three years ago, the state ordered schools in New Jersey to report lead in their drinking water, but it took a newspaper network to compile the reports and find that at least 250,000 students were at risk of drinking water in schools where lead contamination was found. The Trenton bureau of the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey used public records requests to obtain the reports. Nearly a third of the 673 school districts and charters schools reported lead-tainted water in drinking fountains, kitchen faucets, ice machines, coffee makers and emergency eyewash stations. While the reports revealed the extent of the problem, the USA TODAY NETWORK reported state officials have known for at least two decades that lead was leaching from pipes into homes and schools. In Belleville, Mayor Michael Melham drew attention to his town’s water problem with a billboard on Route 21 calling for the state to provide 6,000 water filters for residents who get their water from lead pipes.
    Dustin Racioppi and Stacey Barchenger, northjersey.com, Sept. 26, 2019; Michael Sol Warren, NJ.com, Sept. 26, 2019

  • It’s same ol’ same ol’ when it comes to New Jersey taxpayers paying fees to politically connected private attorneys despite the attorney general’s staff of 450 lawyers on the state payroll. NJ Advance Media pointed out that while Gov. Murphy was a big critic of Gov. Christie, the current governor has made no changes in the way the state spends money on legal work to politically connected law firms. All this despite 450 lawyers on the state payroll. A spokesman for the attorney general said the number of lawyers in the Division of Law has dropped from 600 to 450, but the state still needs to hire outside counsel “to handle the overflow.” Good government advocates criticized both governors to no avail. The only thing that changed, based on the political party of the governor, is which law firms get the “overflow” with Gov. Murphy spending $22 million his first year and Christie spending $20 million and $26 million respectively in his last two years, NJ Advance media reported. While Republican leaning law firms benefitted under Christie, the pendulum has swung to the Democrats under Murphy with the high-profile firm of Genova Burns reaping the benefits. Angelo Genova has been around since the Florio years and can be found in Chapter 7 of The Soprano State. Nancy Erika Smith, a private attorney who has filed lawsuits against NJ Transit, told NJ Advance media that up to four lawyers for the state will show up for low-level court hearings, and the state often insists on oral arguments rather that filing court documents, which would reduce legal fees for taxpayers. The AG’s spokesman acknowledged it would be cheaper to use state lawyers, but there aren’t enough of them, and the AG’s office is looking to add to the 450 lawyers that taxpayers already fund.
    Matt Arco, NJ Advance Media, Aug. 24, 2019

  • If you think anything has changed in terms of which labor union is the most powerful in New Jersey, think again. News agencies have been able to ferret out the top donations to Gov. Murphy’s “dark money” nonprofit, New Direction New Jersey. The New Jersey Education Association, the state teachers’ union, donated $1 million so far this year, NorthJersey.com and USA TODAY NETWORK reported. The union gave $2.5 million in 2018, Politico reported. A promise by Murphy’s former campaign manager to reveal donors was not honored, leaving reporters to find other ways to dig out the donations. Politico discovered last year’s donation in NJEA meeting minutes. NorthJersey.com found this year’s donation in incorporation records and FCC filings.
    Ashley Balcerzak, North Jersey Record, Aug. 13, 2019

  • New Jersey native and real estate developer (and top aide to the president) Jared Kushner was in the news embarrassing the Soprano State again with reports of code violations at Kushner Companies properties in Baltimore brought to the forefront by nasty comments from his father-in-law (President Trump) about the city. When Trump tweeted out that Baltimore was a “rodent infested mess,” it opened the door for major newspapers across the country to report that in 2017 Baltimore County officials found 200 code violations in Kushner owned apartments. (The company maintained it was in compliance with state and local laws.) The New York Times and Pro Publica reported tenants complaining of mouse infestations, mold problems and maggots. Davon Jones told Associated Press his Kushner owned apartment has been plagued with mice for a year. Kushner stepped down as CEO of Kushner Cos., but retains a financial interest. AP reported Jared took $3.1 million in the past two years from Westminster Management, the Kushner subsidiary in Maryland. You can find much more about Jared and his father Charles Kushner in The Soprano State, Chapter Two, describing Charles going to jail for hiring a prostitute to engage in video-taped sex with his brother-in-law.
    Jason Lemon, Newsweek, July 28, 2019; Regina Garcia and Bernard Condon, Associated Press, July 31, 2019; Rebecca Tan, Washington Post, July 28, 2019

  • Gov. Murphy’s administration fired 30 state workers at the Schools Development Authority, 27 of them hired by former agency CEO Lizette Delgado-Polanco. Following investigative reporting by NorthJersey.com and USA TODAY NETWORK, a state probe found “nearly every new hire was directly or indirectly connected personally or professionally to Ms. Delgado-Polanco when hired.” Some of the newly hired were totally unqualified, the state probe reported. The hires occurred after Delgado-Polanco (a former union official and vice chair of the state Democratic Party) took over the agency and fired nearly two dozen veteran employees. In the wake of the SDA scandal, Murphy ordered a review of hiring at all the state authorities, known for decades as patronage pits.
    Dustin Racioppi, NorthJersey.com, July 23, 2019; Matt Arco, NJ Advance Media, July 23, 2019

  • Adding to the Soprano State’s list of court jesters, New Jersey attracted national ridicule and outrage, with the behavior of three judges in sexual assault cases, before two of the judges departed from the bench. The state Supreme Court announced Judge James Troiano, who ruled that a 16-year-old boy accused of rape should not be tried as an adult because he came from a “good family,” has resigned. Prosecutors said the accused filmed the alleged assault and titled it, “When your first time having sex was rape.”
  • In the second case, the high court recommended suspended Judge John Russo Jr., who asked a sexual assault victim whether she knew to close her legs to prevent the assault, be removed from the bench. Russo is a former mayor of Toms River and son of the late Senate President John Russo Sr., known for arranging hot seafood lunches for lawmakers and two state-funded luxury cars for himself. (See Chapter 4 of The Soprano State.)
  • In the third case, more than a dozen members of the state Assembly called for the removal of Judge Marcia Silva, who ruled that a 12-year-old girl’s loss of virginity in an alleged sexual assault was not an “especially heinous or cruel offense,” and the accused, 16, should not be tried as an adult. Appellate courts overturned the rulings by Troiano and Silva. The cases prompted headlines in newspapers across the nation, including the Washington Post, and strong criticism nationally from the #MeToo movement. Locally, thousands signed petitions and others held courthouse protests. Judges in New Jersey are appointed by the governor. Gov. Murphy praised the high court for its action against the two judges by saying it upheld “the reputation of our judiciary.”
  • But you can check out Chapter 5 of The Soprano State to find plenty of “Court Jesters” in the past, and sketchy discipline. Along with the decision on the two judges, State Supreme Court Justice Stuart Rabner ordered an “enhanced training program” for Soprano State judges.
    Timothy Bella, Washington Post, July 18, 2019; Steve Janoski, North Jersey Record, July 18, 2019; Anna Orso, Philadelphia Inquirer, July 17, 2019; Susan K. Livio, NJ Advance Media, July 17, 2019

  • A power play is underway to determine who controls the New Jersey Democratic Party and who controls the statehouse. A task force commissioned by Gov. Murphy issued subpoenas to find out whether firms with ties to powerful political boss George Norcross told the truth when they said they might move out of the state as a way to qualify for millions of dollars in tax breaks. Firms who say they are keeping jobs from leaving New Jersey get higher tax breaks. The task force report said Cooper University Health Care (Norcross is chair of the board of trustees) was initially calculated to receive a $7 million tax break because the hospital said no jobs were at risk of leaving the state. When Cooper later said it was considering a move to Pennsylvania, the state Economic Development Authority approved a $40 million tax break. The tax force cited an email by a VP at Cooper who sought a “term sheet” from a realty firm for a location outside of NJ even though he said there was “no probably” of Cooper moving there. Cooper has denied any wrongdoing in the application. Citing audits documenting mismanagement of the tax break program dating to 2017, Mercer County Judge Mary Jacobson denied a Norcross request to block the release of the task force report.
    Joseph De Avila, Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2019; Dustin Racioppi, NorthJersey.com, June 17, 2019; Jeff Pillets and Nancy Solomon, WNYC News, June 18, 2019; Andrew Seidman, Philadephia Inquirer, June 22, 2019

  • Democrats weighed in on both sides of the battle between Gov. Murphy and George Norcross. Sen. Dick Codey congratulated Murphy for “for having the onions to stand up” to Norcross. Codey, acting governor when Jim McGreevey resigned in 2004, is the longest serving lawmaker in New Jersey history. (More on Codey in Chapters 2 to 8 and 7 and 8 of The Soprano State.) First elected to the state Assembly in 1974, Codey moved to the senate where he served as senate president until Norcross and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo teamed to replace him with now Senate President Steve Sweeney. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a candidate in the Democratic primary for president, is taking heat at home for a $2,800-per-person fundraiser hosted by Norcross and DiVincenzo, Politico reported. Twenty-one progressive organizations called on Booker to cancel the fundraiser and took him to task for cozying up to New Jersey’s political bosses while talking “progressive rhetoric” on the presidential campaign trail, Politico reported. DiVincenzo oversees a prison, cited for poor conditions, that houses undocumented immigrants. While companies with ties to Norcross are under fire by the state task force raising questions about the validity of their applications for millions of dollars in tax breaks, Booker and U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez have praised Norcross’ revitalization of Camden.
    Insider NJ, June 24, 2019; Matt Friedman, Politico, June 25, 2019

  • By claiming he has never ever picked up the phone to call the FBI, President Trump brought New Jersey, its casinos, and the mob back into the news. The Washington Post corrected Trump: he did call the FBI in 1981 when he was worried about the status of his New Jersey casino license application. New Jersey gaming enforcement officials were concerned about Trump’s ties to Daniel Sullivan, a labor consultant for Trump who had a criminal record and mob ties and was an informant for the FBI. The Washington Post reported Trump called the FBI to let agents know that in order to defend his relationship with Sullivan, Trump told a gaming enforcement official that Sullivan was close to the FBI. Trump’s phone call appeared to end plans for an FBI undercover operation involving Sullivan at the Trump casino, the Washington Post reported. And why would Trump now tell ABC News that calling the FBI is not something you do because life doesn’t work that way? He was explaining why he would accept information from a foreign government about a political opponent without necessarily seeing a need to call the FBI. Under fire for the comment, he later backtracked and said he would look at the information, but report it to authorities.
    Aaron Blake, Washington Post, June 13, 2019; Robert O’Harrow Jr., Washington Post, Sept. 17, 2016; Peter Baker, New York Times, June 14, 2019

  • A federal judge put an end to New Jersey’s attempt to withdrawal from the mob-busting agency at the ports of New York and New Jersey. Judge Susan Wigenton granted a summary judgment to the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor in its suit to stop New Jersey from leaving the bistate agency. Wigenton said New Jersey’s departure would need to be approved by lawmakers from both states or by an act of Congress. On his last day in office, former Gov. Christie initiated the attempt to withdraw from the agency and turn its duties over to state police. Senate President Steve Sweeney claims the agency is outdated and hinders economic growth, and he intends to appeal. Walter Arsenault, commission executive director, has said the commission’s role as an organized crime watchdog is as needed today as it was when the agency was created in 1953 and inspired Marlon Brando’s On the Waterfront. In recent years, the commission helped prosecute high-ranking members of the Longshoremen who teamed with the Genovese crime family to extort their own union members.
    Charles Toutant, New Jersey Law Journal, May 30, 2019; CBS News, June 22, 2018

  • New Jersey taxpayers are footing a legal bill of nearly $600,000 to defend a lawsuit filed by the family of reputed mobster Frank Lagano. The lawsuit alleges Lagano was killed because Bergen County prosecutors intentionally revealed his identity as an informant, the North Jersey Record reported. Lagano was shot in the head in 2007 when he got out of a BMW at the Seville Diner in East Brunswick. The killing was related to an organized crime gambling investigation. Bergen County prosecutors and state police dubbed the less than successful probe, Operation Jersey Boyz. The Lagano family also wants $264,000 seized by law enforcement when Frank Lagano was arrested.
    Jane Rimbach, North Jersey Record, June 13, 2019

  • In the biggest Democratic Party feud Soprano State pundits can remember, New Jersey’s most powerful political boss, George Norcross, slapped Gov. Murphy with a lawsuit after the governor’s task force raised serious questions about the awarding of a billion dollars in tax breaks to companies with ties to Norcross. The lawsuit, filed in Mercer County court, alleges Norcross has been “falsely and publicly accused” and has been denied the chance to refute “defamatory accusations.” An investigation by WNYC and ProPublica found of $1.6 billion in tax breaks for companies investing in Camden, $1.1 billion went to Norcross’ company or other entities with ties to him or his brother Philip. The task force also questioned the role of real estate lawyer Kevin Sheehan, an attorney in the law firm run by Philip Norcross, in editing the law that created the tax break program. WNYC and ProPublica reported newly released emails revealed the law firm “enjoyed extraordinary influence over the state’s tax break program” when it was being crafted. The task force found failures in the handling of program applications and raised doubts about applications filed by three companies and a nonprofit tied to Norcross. Norcross is closely aligned with his longtime pal Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat, and the feud will likely continue to thwart the governor’s legislative agenda. But the stakes could be even higher for Murphy. U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, both Democrats, have already expressed support for Norcross. There is talk of a possible primary challenge to Murphy in the future, meaning a Norcross-backed candidate could take on the governor in 2021.
    Dustin Racioppi, northjersey.com, May 21, 2019; Jeff Pillets and Nancy Solomon, WNYC, May 1 and 21, 2019; Ryan Hutchins, Politico, May 21, 2019

  • For decades Soprano State politicians have found ways to travel to exotic spots on the taxpayers’ dime, and some New Jersey mayors are getting on the bandwagon this year with trips to Hawaii for the annual US Conference of Mayors. NJ Advance Media reported that eight New Jersey mayors have preregistered for the conference. Registration alone costs $950 per person. Hotel rooms at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu cost between $279 and $389 a night. NJ Advance Media reported it was difficult to determine how much taxpayers are paying for the conference. The city of Plainfield is sending its mayor and “a few supporting staff,” but a spokesman refused to answer questions about the details, and the city had not responded to an Open Public Records request. The conference schedule includes exclusive access to Iolani Palace and a sampling of “truly amazing” food, beverages and special entertainment. The city of Plainfield spokesman Jazz Clayton-Hunt defended the conference, which, he said, just happened to be in Hawaii this year. He told NJ Advance Media the event offers a chance to create “valuable connections” and to obtain grants. (You can find more about taxpayer-paid junkets in Chapter Four of The Soprano State.)
    Cassidy Grom, NJ Advance Media, May 16, 2019

     

  • While NJ Transit’s Atlantic City Rail Line was shut down for nearly nine months for a safety upgrade, conductors and assistant conductors kept their jobs and even continued to earn tens of thousands of dollars in overtime, The Inquirer reported. The 18 conductors and assistants worked as “ambassadors” for those having to find their way to alternate bus transportation. The total cost in overtime from September to January was $164,138, the same amount as if the trains were running, the newspaper reported. Fewer than 2,000 people use the rail line each day, and critic Nick Pittman told the Inquirer the overtime was a waste of money. “Clearly you don’t need people to work overtime to tell at best a couple of people they have to get on the bus,” Pittman said.
    Jason Laughlin, The Inquirer, May 7, 2019

     

  • New Jersey’s most powerful political boss, George Norcross, is under fire over tax breaks for his Camden projects. An investigation by WNYC and ProPublica found that of $1.6 billion in tax breaks for companies investing in Camden, $1.1 billion went to Norcross’ company or other entities with ties to him or his brother Philip. A task force charged by Gov. Murphy to investigate the tax break program found failures in the handling of applications and raised doubts about applications filed by three companies and a nonprofit tied to Norcross. The task force questioned assertions those companies were at risk of moving to Philadelphia if the tax breaks were not awarded. The task force also questioned the role of real estate lawyer Kevin Sheehan, a lawyer in the law firm run by Philip Norcross, in editing the law that created the tax break program. The state has awarded nearly $11 billion in tax breaks to various companies, and the state comptroller in January found New Jersey had poor oversight over the program and did not have an adequate process for determining how many jobs the tax breaks really brought to New Jersey. George Norcross was key to getting the law passed, and Camden received four times as many tax breaks as the combined amounts of other “growth cities,” WNYC reported. Norcross issued a statement thanking WNYC for its story and said, “The fact that private investment is returning to Camden is no accident – it was planned and fought for.” You can read much more about George Norcross in The Soprano State where you can find him on 23 pages, including 14 pages in Chapter 3 on party bosses. His power comes from both sides of the political aisle. A member of the Democratic National Committee, he also has a membership at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club.
    Nancy Solomon and Jeff Pillets, WNYC and ProPublica, May 1, 2019; Matt Friedman and Katherine Landergan, Politico, May 2, 2019; Dustin Racioppi and Ashley Balcerzak, NorthJersey.com, May 3, 2019; New York Times, Nick Corasaniti and Matthew Haag, May 1, 2019; George Norcross, May 1, 2019

 

  • In the wake of a media investigation, Lizette Delgado-Polanco has resigned as chief executive of the Schools Development Authority and as vice chair of the state Democrats. Her husband also resigned from his post as a community liaison in the Department of Education. Her annual salary was $225,000 while his was $95,000. The resignations come after investigations by NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK reported the agency, which funds school projects, fired two dozen veteran workers and hired 38 new employees, many of them with ties to Delgado-Polanco. In a follow-up report, news reporters found 10 of the newly hired did not meet the qualifications for their jobs. Sen. Tom Kean Jr. said the resignations do not end the request for answers about management at the state agency. “The resignation of Lizette Delgado-Polanco should not be viewed as a ‘get out of jail free’ card for either the SDA or the Murphy administration,” Kean told NorthJersey.com.
    Dustin Racioppi, NorthJersey.com, April 4, 15, 23, 26, 2019

     

  • Despite her tears and her blaming others (including Gov. Christie), Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, was sentenced to 13 months in federal prison for her role in the Bridgegate affair. Kelly set off the Fort Lee lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, clogging traffic with school buses and ambulances, with an email that said, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Prosecutors argued it was punishment for the Fort Lee mayor who failed to support Christie’s reelection bid. Jurors said it was an abuse of federal funds. Federal Judge Susan Wigenton said despite Kelly’s courtroom sobs, “The facts haven’t changed. The evidence hasn’t changed.” Kelly said she thought the lane closures were a traffic study and told Christie it was going to happen. Christie has denied a role in the scheme. After an appellate court upheld most of the charges against her, Kelly has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. President Trump in 2016 made comments sympathetic to Kelly, and she told the Washington Post she is not orchestrating, but would accept, a presidential pardon.
    Ryan Hutchins, Politico, April 24, 2019; Matt Zapotosky, Washington Post, April 24, 2019; Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, April 25, 2019; Dustin Racioppi, NorthJersey.com, April 24, 2019

     

  • A jury convicted powerful political boss and Ocean County GOP Chairman George Gilmore of filing a false $1.5 million loan application and of failing to turn over taxes collected from his law firm employees, but in typical Soprano State style, Gilmore had “no intention of resigning,” until word came that state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal was about to remove him from all public positions. Defense lawyer Kevin Marino said the whole thing is a misunderstanding and he hopes to have the federal judge overturn the case. If not, Marino is likely to appeal, the Asbury Park Press reported. Some Republicans had begun to call for the resignation of Gilmore as county GOP chief and chair of the county Board of Elections. After a trial that lasted two weeks, Gilmore was acquitted on charges of filing false tax returns. The jury could not reach a verdict on income tax evasion, charges the feds could retry him on. He was convicted of collecting federal payroll taxes from employees but not fully turning that money over to the IRS. The jury also concluded that without disclosing his outstanding taxes and other debts, he refinanced a $1.5 million mortgage. Federal investigators said Gilmore received a $572,000 cash out, which he did not use to pay his back taxes but instead continued lavish spending on art work, antiques, home renovations and Colorado vacations, including a $82,000 woolly mammoth tusk, a $80,000 Lionel model train and a $33,000 bronze statue of George Washington, the Asbury Park Press reported. Gilmore, chair of the Ocean County GOP for more than 20 years, is described in The Soprano State (Chapter 3) as a lesser boss who operates behind the scenes. He is a partner in the law firm of Gilmore & Monahan and counts among his clients numerous New Jersey municipalities where the feds have been poking around for years. Republicans outnumber Democrats in only six of the state’s 21 counties, and Ocean County has the largest margin of Republicans over Democrats. Any GOP candidate hoping to win statewide, needed Ocean County, and Gilmore.
    Jean Mikle and Eric Larsen, Asbury Park Press, April 18, 2019; Jean Mikle, Asbury Park Press, April 17 and 18, 2019; Jeff Goldman, nj.com, April 17, 2019

     

  • Government in New Jersey is up to its old tricks: hiring people convicted of crimes, hiring those who are politically connected, and hiring those who don’t have qualifications for the jobs they are paid to do. As always, reporters are having to file complaints and public records requests to get at the truth. There are three new cases where public officials convicted of crimes should have been barred from government work, but were hired anyway, the Associated Press reported. The Associated Press filed a records request to find out if there were any more government employees like Marcellus Jackson, who admitted taking bribes (a federal crime) and was legally barred from government work, but was hired by the Murphy administration as a $70,000-a-year assistant to the commissioner of education. Jackson resigned after news reports of his hiring and a review of his case by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. Grewal found prosecutors failed to file an order with the courts barring Jackson from state work, and the attorney general promised to see if prosecutors failed to file any other such orders and people were hired. He found three: two former school board members and a court administrator who pleaded guilty to charges related to soliciting and accepting bribes and yet the paperwork for barring them from government jobs was not filed. Former Pleasantville school board member Pete Callaway was hired at a community college and former Pleasantville school board member Jayson Adams was hired as an Atlantic County employee, Associated Press reported. Callaway denied the hiring. Princess Reeves, a former court administrator, was hired to do temporary work for the Passaic County Board of Elections. The three are no longer in those jobs, Associated Press reported.
    Mike Catalini and Rhonda Shafner, Associated Press, April 10, 2019

     

  • In another jobs scandal, the Schools Development Authority hired 10 people who didn’t meet the qualifications for their jobs, North Jersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK reported. NorthJersey.com waited six weeks after requesting job descriptions for the newly hired at the authority and then only received “generic job descriptions.” The agency, which funds school projects, fired two dozen veteran workers and hired 38 new employees, many of them with ties to its chief executive Lizette Delgado-Polanco, vice chair of the state Democrats, according to NorhtJersey.com. “Many of those new employees had personal or professional connections to Delgado-Polanco but did not appear, based on their resumes, to be qualified for jobs that pay up to six figures,” Dustin Racioppi reported. “Some didn’t have college degrees. Others lacked professional accreditation. Or even relevant work experience. One didn’t have a driver’s license.” An authority spokesman, however, said those hired were “highly qualified for their positions.” The situation mirrored what happened under Gov. McGreevey when Democrat Susan Bass Levin headed the Department of Community Affairs and restructured the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency where 26 were fired and 38 hired much of it based on political affiliation with questions raised about the qualifications of the new hires. In the housing authority case, employees, who said their First Amendment rights were violated, won a $1.25 million settlement.
    Dustin Racioppi, NorthJersey.com, April 4 and 15, 2019

     

  • Charter schools in New Jersey have been a lifeline for parents in urban areas hoping for a better life for their kids. One third of the students in Newark attend charter schools, and the number of charter schools in the Soprano state is expected to grow to 30 this year, according to northjersey.com. The system educates 50,000 with 35,000 on waiting lists. But an investigation by northjersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK revealed a significant waste of taxpayers’ dollars as a result of flaws in the 1996 law that set up the charter school system. It is another example of a good idea gone awry because of Soprano state politics. According to the northjersey.com investigation, the law did not provide a way for charter schools to finance their school buildings. Why? To avoid controversy with the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teachers’ union, and others opposed to the charter school idea. The result, according to northjersey.com: the diversion of millions of dollars (local, state and federal tax dollars) to private companies that control the real estate for charter school buildings. “What that means is that millions of your tax dollars are being siphoned off by private interests to pay for buildings, often without your knowledge, that you don’t own,” northjersey.com reported.  Rents exceed building costs. The public doesn’t own the buildings. The state provides little oversight. The charter school investigation comes on the heels of another probe by northjersey.com and USA TODAY NETWORK which revealed that the Schools Development Authority, which manages $11 billion in public school construction and whose head Lizette Delgado-Polanco is vice chair of the Democratic State Committee, fired 26 employees, many of them veteran employees, and hired 38 new people, many with connections to Delgado-Polanco or her family.
    Jean Rimbach and Abbott Koloff, northjersey.com, March 27, 2019; Daniel Sforza, northjersey.com, March 27, 2019; Dustin Racioppi, northjersey.com, Feb. 25 and 27, 2019

     

  • The pay raises Newark City Council handed themselves for part-time jobs were so outrageous the Soprano state made the news in Texas, North Carolina, and Kansas. Associated Press picked up the nj.com story, and folks in far-flung places must have shook their heads in amazement. Newark City Council voted to increase its own salaries by more than $30,000, NJ Advance Media reported. Council President Mildred Crump’s salary went from $71,000 to $105,000. The salaries of eight council members grew from $64,000 to $95,000. Adding insult to injury, the raises are retroactive to July. Five members voted in favor of the raises. Two others arrived late for the vote, but registered a “no” vote with the clerk, nj.com reported. The two voting “no” told nj.com it was too much money for a part-time job. Council recently raised the salary of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka by $50,000 from $130,221 to $180,000. Council also gave Baraka the option of taking a $30,000 allowance instead of filing for his expenses. The new salaries for council members included expense accounts of between $12,000 and $14,000. The city clerk said it was the first council raise since 2006.
    Karen Yi, NJ Advance Media, Feb. 11 and March 12, 2019; Associated Press, March 12, 2019

     

  • Gov. Murphy wants to know who was hired or promoted at the state’s 50 authorities over the past three years and whether those hired are related to anyone else in state government. Government authorities in the Soprano State have long been patronage pits and ways of getting around the need to ask taxpayer permission for bond issues. (See Chapter Seven of The Soprano State where we call authorities “burying grounds for deadwood and unemployed relatives.”) The governor’s action comes on the heels of the newest authority scandal uncovered by the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey and reported by The Record. The Schools Development Authority, which manages $11 billion in school construction and whose head Lizette Delgado-Polanco, vice chair of the Democratic State Committee, was appointed by Murphy, is under fire for getting rid of 26 employees, many of them veteran employees, and hiring 38 new people, many of them with personal connections to Delgado-Polanco or her family, The Record reported. An investigation by USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey found among the new hires were the mother of Delgado-Polanco’s grandchild, 10 people connected to the unions where she used to work and a friend of her daughter. The authority defended the new hires by saying all were highly qualified but did not provide job postings or descriptions to the Record. The report was fuel to Senate President Steve Sweeney’s push to eliminate the authority and move its responsibilities to the state Economic Development Authority. It would not be the first time the state agency in charge of school construction was dissolved because of scandal. The Schools Construction Corp., charged with spending $8 billion to upgrade schools in the state’s poorest districts, wasted millions of dollars before it was replaced in 2007 by the Schools Development Authority. The authority was rocked by scandal earlier in the year when questions were raised about the hiring of Al Alvarez as the authority’s chief of staff when he had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman on the Murphy campaign. Alvarez was the one who fired the veteran employees before resigning, The Record reported. He now faces a subpoena by a legislative committee to explain the firings. Delgado-Polanco is paid $225,000 a year. The governor won’t have to go far to find her relatives in state government, The Record reported. Her daughter, Brianna Earle, is his director of public engagement and is paid $110,000. Delgado-Polanco’s husband, Enohel Polanco-Gonzalez, was hired by the state Education Department at a salary of $95,000.
    Dustin Racioppi, northjersey.com, Feb. 25 and 27 and March 2 and 6, 2019; Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, March 6, 2019

  • Bridgegate conspirator Bill Baroni, former Port Authority deputy executive director, will spend 18 months in federal prison for his role in closing the Fort Lee Lanes to the George Washington Bridge to punish the mayor for not supporting Gov. Christie’s reelection. The sentencing judge U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton called Baroni’s behavior “an outrageous display of an abuse of power.” Baroni told the judge he did it for Christie. “I wanted to please him,” Baroni said. “I got sucked into his cult and culture.” Therein lies the heart of the matter. That’s why we called it The Soprano State, New Jersey’s Culture of Corruption. The culture of corruption that has plagued Trenton and the state continues on. Baroni said he was sorry for what he did. He said he thought he knew the difference between right and wrong, but that changed when he went to work for the Port Authority and Christie. A former state senator, Baroni called himself a broken man. He has been doing volunteer work in New York City for LGBT children and immigrants, but the judge said that did not change the facts in the case. In addition to the prison term, she sentenced him to one year of supervised release, 500 hours of community service, fined him $7,500 and ordered him to pay restitution of $14,314. Convicted in the case with Baroni was Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, who is appealing her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld five of the seven counts in the conviction of Baroni and Kelly. The appellate court dismissed counts related to civil rights conspiracy. For that reason, Wigenton changed Baroni’s sentence from 24 to 18 months. The lane closure scheme was planned for the first day of school, meaning school buses, commuters, ambulances and fire trucks were stuck in the traffic jam. The conspirators agreed to disregard the pleas from the mayor and others about the traffic jam’s risk to public safety, according to prosecutors. The conspirators also concocted a sham story about the lane closures being a traffic study, and Baroni went so far as to testify about the bogus study when he appeared before a state legislative committee investigating the closures, prosecutors said.
    Attorney for the United States Mark Coyne, Feb. 26, 2019; Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, Feb. 26, 2019

  • Bridget Anne Kelly, Gov. Christie’s former deputy chief of staff convicted in the Bridgegate case and famous for her email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” is looking to get out of her jail-time sentence and intends to take her last option, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The letter of intent, filed by her attorneys, comes after the U.S. Court of Appeals refused to take a second look at the case. A panel of judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld five of the seven counts in Kelly’s conviction. Kelly’s lawyers argue what she did was mere politics because there was none of the traditional bribes often seen in the Soprano State. But a jury, and the U.S. Court of Appeals, disagreed. Bill Baroni, the Port Authority executive convicted along with Kelly, has given up his appeals and has asked the judge to resentence him, based on the five counts upheld by the appellate court. A jury found Kelly and Baroni guilty of wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy and misapplying property of an organization receiving federal funds. They were convicted of closing the Fort Lee lanes to the George Washington Bridge in a scheme that prosecutors said was aimed at punishing the mayor for not supporting Christie’s reelection. Planned for the first day of school, the lane closures meant school buses, commuters, ambulances and fire trucks were stuck in the traffic jam. The appellate court dismissed counts related to civil rights conspiracy, but focused on the use of federal funds for the scheme, ruling “to execute their scheme, they conscripted 14 Port Authority employees to do sham work in pursuit of no legitimate Port Authority aim.” Baroni was sentenced to 24 months, Kelly to 18 months. They are free, pending appeal. Kelly testified Gov. Christie knew about the scheme, something he denies.
    Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, Feb. 12, 2019; Tom Nobile, North Jersey Record, Feb. 12, 2019

  • For 103 years local officials from the Soprano State have poured into Atlantic City for the annual League of Municipalities conference where hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars were spent last year on the likes of a $30 omelet, a $300 limo ride and a $1,063 meal, the North Jersey Record reported. The Record tabulated that during the three-day conference, $378,000 was spent by local officials from Bergen and Passaic counties and parts of Morris and Essex counties. The annual gathering was defended by Micah Rasmussen, now director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. Rasmussen is the former press secretary for Gov. Jim McGreevey. Rasmussen is the aide who constantly went to the mat for McGreevey and who McGreevey during a legislative correspondence club speech jokingly compared to Baghdad Bob, the Iraqi Minister of Misinformation. (See Chapter 2 of The Soprano State.) “There are lots of opportunities to work hard, and a lot to play hard,“ Rasmussen told The Record, which found only 37.6 percent of the officials used their badges to attend classes on municipal issues. Cliffside Park officials spent more taxpayers’ money at the conference than any other town, $17,791 for 22 officials, including a limo ride, taxis and expensive meals, with one councilman’s meal costing $1,063, according to the Record investigation. Only four Cliffside Park officials swiped cards to record their attendance at a class. A spokesman said they might not have swiped, but they listened and took notes. What really can get dicey are the after-hours events of receptions, breakfasts, cigar nights and liquor tasting sponsored by law firms and engineering companies. Companies are looking for municipal business. And sometimes the feds are looking too. For more than a decade it has been known that the feds have used the after-hour events at the annual conference for sting operations.
    Katie Sobko and Kristie Cattafi, North Jersey Record, Jan. 24, 2019

  • The feds indicted one of New Jersey’s party bosses, Ocean County GOP chair George Gilmore, identified in The Soprano State (Chapter 3) as a lesser boss who operates behind the scenes, but who has been key to any Republican winning statewide. A federal grand jury charged Gilmore with more than $1 million in tax evasion and with failing to turn over taxes collected from the employees of his law firm. Federal prosecutors said Gilmore owed the IRS $1.5 million by the end of 2016, while between 2014 and 2016 he spent more than $2.5 million on home remodeling, Colorado vacations, antiques, artwork, and collectables, including animal tusks. His lawyer, white collar crime defense attorney Kevin Marino, attributed Gilmore’s woes to a hoarding disorder and pledged his vindication. The charges accuse Gilmore of concealing information from the IRS, falsely classifying income, making false statements to the IRS, filing false tax returns, and understating his income from his law firm. County GOP chair since 1996, Gilmore is a partner in the law firm of Gilmore & Monahan and counts among his clients numerous New Jersey municipalities where the feds have been poking around for years. The indictment reads like a true Soprano State story. Gilmore is accused of using the law firm’s bank accounts for $2 million in personal expenses. He also is charged with paying back taxes with a $493,000 check to the IRS that bounced because he only had $2,500 in the account. In the two months after he wrote the check (and after he was told it bounced), the feds accuse him of spending more than $80,000 on personal items that included art work and antiques. Gilmore was responsible for withholding federal payroll taxes from his law firm’s employees and is charged with collecting the taxes, but not fully turning them over to the IRS. He also is charged with making false statements on a loan application to Ocean First Bank. Without disclosing his outstanding taxes and other debts, he refinanced a $1.5 million mortgage and received a $572,000 cash out, which he did not use to pay his back taxes, the feds charge. Republicans stood behind the powerful chairman with Freeholder Jack Kelly saying it was too early to suggest Gilmore resign his post. “Just because the government has put together a case doesn’t mean it’s the truth,” Kelly told the Asbury Park Press.
    First Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachael Honig, Jan. 10, 2019; Karen Wall, Patch, Jan. 10, 2019; Jean Mikle and Erik Larsen, Asbury Park Press, Jan. 10 and 11, 2019; Thomas Moriary, NJ Advance Media, Jan. 10, 2019

  • Jim McGreevey has been accused of acting as a lawyer without an active law license and has been fired as head of the Jersey City job training and prisoner re-entry program. Wherever the former governor goes in public life, controversy eventually seems to follow. McGreevey resigned from the state's top job in disgrace in 2004 after admitting to an extramarital affair with a man identified as Golan Cipel, the unqualified Israeli McGreevey hired as the state's security advisor. (See Chapter 2 of The Soprano State for all the details.) For the past six years, McGreevey led the Jersey City Employment and Training Program at a salary of $119,000 a year. But he is now in trouble with Mayor Steve Fulop and the nonprofit's board of directors, who are appointed by Fulop. Sudhan Thomas, chair of the board, has described McGreevey's decision to act as a lawyer for the agency when he does not have an active law license as "disturbing" and a "huge exposure" to the city, the Jersey Journal reported. McGreevey told the newspaper his goal was to save money. And there are other problems. In October, the city withheld federal money from the program, and city business administrator Brian Platt defended the decision by saying the training program was not compliant with rules on cash spending, did not provide proper job placement for clients and did not do required reporting, the Jersey Journal reported. At the same time it fired McGreevey at a meeting where no reasons were given, the board hired a lawyer and an auditor to review the program's finances. McGreevey's lawyer, high-profile defense lawyer Michael Critchley, sent a letter to Fulop threating to sue if McGreevey was fired at Fulop's direction, the Jersey Journal reported. NJTV News reported McGreevey is claiming he deserves protection under the state's whistleblower law because his woes with the program are a result of his firing a political operative who admitted taking cash from program clients after he helped them get jobs. In typical McGreevey style, he invited friends to attend the meeting where he knew he was about to be fired and emphasized he's a local by saying he works with clients from the neighborhood of his parents and grandparents. The board voted 5-3-1 to fire McGreevey despite "pro-McGreevey testimonials from nearly 30 people," the Jersey Journal reported.
    Terrence T. McDonald, Jersey Journal, Jan. 5 and 7, 2019; Briana Vannozzi, NJTV News, Jan. 7, 2019

  • The news is never good for the Soprano State when United Van Lines issues its annual report of who is moving where. In 2018, New Jersey saw more people move out than any other state. Of those New Jersey residents moving, 66.8 percent were moving out. New Jersey has the distinction of being ranked in the top "outbound" states for the past 10 years. But in 2018, it moved from number two to number one. Following New Jersey in the ranking of those states with the most outbound residents was Illinois, followed by Connecticut and New York. Folks are migrating to southern and western states because of job growth, lower costs of living, state budgetary issues and more temperate climates, according to Michael Stoll, an economist at UCLA. Seventy percent of those departing New Jersey said the reason was retirement or employment. If you are wondering which state tops the "moving in" list, it is Vermont, followed by Oregon
    United Van Lines, Jan. 2, 2019; David M. Zimmer, North Jersey Record, Jan. 5, 2019

  • Bill Baroni, the Port Authority executive convicted in the Bridgegate scandal, is ready to face jail time. Baroni's lawyers signaled they will no longer appeal a federal appellate court decision upholding convictions of wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy and misapplying property of an organization receiving federal funds. Baroni and Gov. Christie's former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly were convicted of closing the Fort Lee lanes to the George Washington Bridge in a scheme that prosecutors said was aimed at punishing the mayor for not supporting Christie's reelection. The appellate court dismissed a count of civil rights conspiracy for each defendant while upholding the other charges. The appellate court noted that "to execute their scheme, they conscripted 14 Port Authority employees to do sham work in pursuit of no legitimate Port Authority aim." Baroni was sentenced to 24 months, Kelly to 18 months. The appellate court ordered U.S. District Court to issue new sentences, based on the dropping of the civil rights charges. Kelly's lawyer, high-profile defense lawyer Michael Critchley, vowed to take her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
    Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, Jan. 5, 2019

  • For the first time in at least 10 years, the New Jersey State House Commission stripped a judge of her pension. The state Supreme Court booted Superior Court Judge Liliana DeAvila-Silebi from the bench after investigators said she made a bogus phone call to police to help an intern win custody of her child. DeAvila-Silebi informed police about a court order that didn't exist, investigators found. The high court ruled she misused her position to help the intern, made false statements under oath and altered telephone records to cover up her actions. Sen. Gerald Cardinale, a commission member, told the North Jersey Record, "What's striking is that she continued to provide cover stories as time went on. There's no respect for the law." What also is striking is that only four of seven commission members thought her pension should be stripped. Here are the three who voted for her to keep her pension: Sen. Bob Smith, Justin Braz (the governor's deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs) and David Ridolfino (acting director of the Office of Management and Budget).
    Tom Nobile, North Jersey Record, Jan. 3, 2019


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