Water Agency Whistleblower Group Has Lingering Questions re Booker Role in Scandal

On January 7, 2021, former Newark police officer Janell Robinson was sentenced to nine years in federal prison for her role in a massive fraud and kickback scheme that sent half a dozen others to jail and took down the Newark Watershed Conservation & Development Corporation (“NWCDC”), the quasi-public entity that managed Newark’s reservoirs and ran its water treatment plant.

The corruption was unearthed by the Newark Water Group in its efforts to prevent Newark from privatizing its water system.

Starting in 2012, New Jersey Appleseed represented the Water Group members, who formed a Committee of Petitioners to pursue the Initiative and Referendum (I&R) process, by which they sought to have the City Council pass an ordinance blocking privatization or submit the issue to the voters. After the City Council adopted the proposed ordinance and Mayor Cory Booker responded by suing the Council and the Committee, NJ Appleseed defended the Committee and assisted the subsequent effort to bring to justice those responsible for the corruption and help shepherd the NWCDC through receivership and bankruptcy.

The NWCDC is long gone, its duties assumed by the Newark Water & Sewer Department, and everyone else convicted in the scandal was sentenced years ago, with two of them currently serving lengthy federal prison terms. Robinson’s case took longer because she went to trial rather than pleading guilty like the others. Her sentencing would seem to signal a final closing of the book on this sordid tale but it does not. There remain too many unanswered questions that are set forth in the following statement issued by the Newark Water Group in response to the sentencing.

Many of the questions concern Cory Booker who was the Chairman of the NWCDC Board of Directors but never attended a single meeting.

QUESTIONS REMAIN AS FEDS WRAP UP NWCDC PROSECUTIONS

January 7, 2021                                                                  for immediate release

NEWARK — Today’s sentencing of Janell Robinson seemingly brings an end to the criminal investigations of a massive fraud and kickback scheme operating inside the Newark watershed that lasted for years and resulted in more than a million dollars of city money stolen or misappropriated.

As the people who first uncovered the corruption inside the watershed, members of the Newark Water Group (NWG) are clearly pleased that both state and federal investigators and law enforcement authorities put a stop to the pillaging and exposed numerous instances of abuse and misuse of power and money, a fair share of it criminal in nature.

It is to their everlasting credit that the New Jersey Office of the State Comptroller in Trenton and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark each spent years in their efforts to unearth the perversion of honesty, decency and fiscal propriety that existed inside the nonprofit entity that ran the watershed – the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corp. (NWCDC).

The comptroller and federal prosecutors are to be applauded for their work and perseverance.

Nonetheless, the NWG believes there are still many questions about what occurred inside the NWCDC that have not yet been answered or were left unaddressed during the probes. They remain outstanding to this day.

With that in mind, the NWG is calling on Acting U.S. Attorney Rachael Honig to open her office’s files to the extent she can (even grand jury records) after the pandemic is over in order to settle all unresolved issues, thus giving the public the assurance it deserves that every stone of potential wrongdoing and mismanagement was turned over for examination during the NWCDC investigations.

 The comptroller’s office could do the same.

In the alternative, each of them could respond to the following questions that apply to them in a written statement to be made public.

The questions are as follows:

  1. Why did the U.S. Attorney’s Office choose not to charge some or all of those it accused of criminal wrongdoing with an overarching count of conspiracy since the facts of the case seemed to support it? A conspiracy count might also have given prosecutors the opportunity of charging additional culpable individuals.
  2. Linda Brashear remained steadfast in her insistence that, as the NWCDC’s executive director, she never took any significant action without the knowledge and/or approval of officials in Newark City Hall? She surely must have identified those people to investigators as part of her plea deal. Who were the higher-ups she sought approval from and what did they want approved?
  3. Were the allegations that Linda Brashear made in her sworn statement of October 2015 about Elnardo Webster, the NWCDC’s general counsel, and Oscar James Sr., a paid NWCDC consultant, investigated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office and, if so, what was found?
  4. Cory Booker has said he first learned of problems inside the NWCDC in March 2013, a claim that seems preposterous since the media ran many stories about serious problems with the NWCDC well before that. Did the U.S. Attorney’s Office find evidence to the contrary and can the U.S. Attorney’s Office assure the public that neither Booker nor Elnardo Webster knew about improprieties inside the NWCDC prior to the state comptroller’s investigation or the filing of charges by federal prosecutors?
  5. Did Cory Booker know of the changes made in the NWCDC’s bylaws in September 2012 that unilaterally removed all City of Newark control over the NWCDC but continued him as board chairman as a private citizen? Did Booker approve the bylaw changes?
  6. Was it legal or proper for Cory Booker to issue an executive order that continued funding of the NWCDC without any conditions, hearings or input from the public while serving as chair of the NWCDC board as a private citizen after the Newark City Council voted to stop funding of the NWCDC in September 2012? Was there an underlying reason he took that action?
  7. Would the U.S. Attorney’s Office be willing to release copies or summaries of the interviews that were conducted with Cory Booker and Elnardo Webster?
  8. Did investigators ever review any emails or text messages between Cory Booker and Elnardo Webster during the period that Booker was mayor and Webster served as the NWCDC’s general counsel?
  9. In late 2011 and early 2012, the Newark municipal council formed a committee to investigate the NWCDC and gave that committee subpoena power. The NWCDC immediately went to court to quash the investigation on far-fetched grounds. It prevailed because the council did not have the funds to hire an attorney to answer the NWCDC’s motion. Why didn’t Cory Booker, as mayor, order the City Corporation Counsel to defend the city’s right to investigate the NWCDC?
  10. How did Cory Booker dissolve the NWCDC in March 2013 if his role was primarily decorative and he had no real power to affect NWCDC operations?
  11. From 2007, when Cory Booker exercised his powers as mayor and appointed a new NWCDC board and Linda Brashear became executive director, until 2014, the NWCDC received roughly $40 million from the City of Newark. How much of that money was spent on legitimate watershed operations and the water treatment plant?
  12. Did investigators ever look into whether the city’s allocation of funds to the NWCDC included disbursements to pet projects of politically connected individuals that had nothing to do with Newark’s water and, if so, what did they find?
  13. What were the circumstances surrounding Linda Brashear’s continuing to hire Walter Frye, accountant, and Lawrence Belcher, independent auditor, and increase their pay while, according to the state comptroller, they failed to do their jobs in accordance with established procedure and did not even carry insurance to protect the NWCDC in the event their services were found in error or improper?
  14. Did the process of lowering the pH level of Pequannock water delivered to Newark begin while the NWCDC was running the water system? If so, what was the decision process? The decision, whoever made it, led to Newark’s failure to deliver water to its customers that complied with EPA lead regulations. 
  15. Has the City of Newark established any oversight procedures or approved any rules, regulations or guidelines to make certain that what was found inside the NWCDC does not occur at another of the other nonprofit or quasi-public agencies that benefit from city funding? Such recommendations were contained in the comptroller’s report.

One thought on “Water Agency Whistleblower Group Has Lingering Questions re Booker Role in Scandal

  1. lesson for the future. Private citizens can make a difference if they are informed and take action. The Newark Water Group consistent mainly of private citizens who dedicated many hours looking into the affairs of the Newark Watershed CDC. I hope that future Young scholars will study this saga and understand that in a democracy an engaged and informed electorate is necessary for a democracy to survive.

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