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.

LITTLE COOPERATION WITH ICE IN NJ OTHER THAN ESSEX COUNTY

A recent report on the extent to which state, county and local law enforcement agencies in New Jersey have been cooperating with federal immigration authorities has not received much attention so I am shining a light on it.

What I find particularly striking and upsetting is what it shows about the jail in Essex County, where I live. There are more instances of Essex County Corrections working with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) than in all other 20 counties combined. Essex County has even collaborated more than the state Department of Corrections and thus the entire state prison system. 

The Immigrant Trust Directive  

The report, released last month, is required by the Immigrant Trust Directive, No, 2018-6, issued by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in November 2018. Applicable to state and local police officers, correctional officers working in state prisons and county jails, and state and county prosecutors, the directive limits the types of assistance that New Jersey’s 36,000 law enforcement officers may provide to federal immigration authorities.

The directive, which took effect on March 15, 2019, requires an annual report so the first one, released in November 2020, runs from that date until the end of 2019.

It limits cooperation with ICE to what is legally required by virtue of law or court order and does so for the stated purpose of preserving trust and cooperation between immigrant communities and law enforcement in order to protect public safety.  

Thus, law enforcement officers in NJ may not help enforce ICE detainers or administrative warrants or orders. They may not ask about immigration status unless relevant to or necessary to the offense at issue nor may they stop, question, arrest, search or detain anyone based solely on immigration status or suspected violation of immigration laws. With limited exceptions (which include enforcing of NJ criminal laws, complying with applicable federal, state  and local law or a valid request or order from a court, exigent circumstances, and joint taskforce operations whose primary purpose is not related to civil immigration enforcement), they may not take part in immigration enforcement operations, provide ICE with nonpublic personally identifying information (such as SSN, driver’s license number, unlisted  phone number, bank or credit information) or let ICE use equipment, office space, data, etc.  Subject to those same exceptions, they also may not provide ICE access to a detainee for an interview without the detainee’s informed written consent, or notify ICE of an upcoming release or hold onto someone for ICE past the time they are eligible for release, unless that person is charged with, or has been convicted within the last five years, of a violent or serious offense (defined in the Directive) or is subject to a deportation order that has been signed by a federal judge and is in the possession of the prison or jail.

The Directive emphasizes that no law enforcement agency in NJ need do anything for ICE beyond what is required by law, stating: “This Directive does not mandate that law enforcement officials provide assistance in any particular circumstance, even when by the terms of the Directive, they are permitted to do so.”   

Despite that caveat and all the Directive’s prohibitions, cooperation with ICE (presumably within the exceptions) occurred more than 1,300 times during the nine and one half months covered by the report. And Essex County was responsible for more than half of those times.

Such collaboration by any county with ICE is troubling given that the agency, long known for ripping people from their families and communities and incarcerating them for indefinite periods before deporting them, got even worse under Trump, escalating those activities, denying refugees the opportunity to apply for asylum and taking thousands of children from parents and then losing track of some of them. (As of October, the parents of 545 of them still had not been found.)

Essex is overwhelmingly Democratic, has a large immigrant population and its largest city, Newark, the seat of the County government and the situs of the County jail, has proclaimed itself a sanctuary city. But it is also one of three counties in NJ that are currently housing ICE detainees, bringing in about $40 million per year for Essex. That contract has brought sustained and vocal opposition from community, faith and other groups, who have been urging Essex to end the arrangement. Their efforts, bolstered by a scathing federal report in 2019 on the conditions in which detainees are housed at the Essex County Jail. have had an impact. In 2020, the County governing body, the Essex County Freeholders (renamed Commissioners as of Jan. 1, 2020), established a civilian oversight board to monitor jail conditions for detainees and the President of the Freeholder/Commissioner Board, Brendan Gill, has spoken out publicly against the County’s contract with ICE. And last June, the Board went so far as to pass a symbolic resolution calling for release of the detainees during the pandemic.

Still, somehow, Essex continues to profit from their detention and has done far more to help ICE than any other county, including Bergen and Hudson, which have their own contracts with ICE. Essex County’s 700 or so reported instances of cooperation dwarf the fewer than 100 reported by Bergen. And Hudson has only one.

In contrast, Sussex County, where county officials staked out a position in opposition to the state directive and voters in November 2019 overwhelmingly approved a referendum in favor of cooperation with ICE, showed almost no cooperation during 2019, at least—just 3 instances where it gave ICE a heads up on an impending release. (Sussex number’s might be low though because it began transferring its inmates to Morris County on July 1, 2019 and ceased operating its own jail by fall of 2019.

What the Numbers Show  

Not a single county provided assistance in two areas—participating in enforcement operations or allowing ICE access to law enforcement assets. Nor did the DOC.

With regard to providing ICE with non-public personally identifying information, only two counties –Camden and Cape May – did so—Camden twice and Cape May 30 times.

Multiple counties, however, allowed ICE to interview a detained individual (551 instances by 10 counties and the DOC), tipped ICE off about a prisoner’s upcoming release (779 instances by 18 counties and the DOC) and held onto them past their release eligibility (403 instances by 10 counties), though they are not allowed to do so past midnight of the release eligibility date.

For Essex those numbers are 360 ICE interviews, 168 tipoffs and 168 holds. The identical number of tipoffs and holds would seem to indicate that Essex was not only kind enough to let ICE know it was about to release someone but obligingly held on to that same individual until ICE could come and grab them on the way out. 

The DOC gave ICE tipoffs even more frequently than Essex, on 238 occasions, but it never held onto anyone for ICE. It allowed 124 ICE interviews, roughly one-third the Essex number.

Other than Essex, the counties that did the most for ICE were Bergen (2 interviews, 49 tipoffs and 44 holds), Cape May (30 interviews, 11 tip-offs and 11 holds as well as 30 instances of supplying personal information), Middlesex (7 interviews, 70 tipoffs and 70 holds), Monmouth (2, 25 and 25), Morris (0, 36 and 35), and Ocean (0, 44 and 21).  

Surprisingly, the report shows almost no cooperation from Sussex County—just three tipoffs about an impending release and nothing else. Yet County officials in Sussex vociferously opposed the Directive and put the question of cooperation with ICE to a referendum in November 2019 that won overwhelming approval from voters. One reason Sussex’s numbers might be low is that it began transferring its inmates to Morris County on July 1, 2019 and ceased operating its own jail by fall of 2019.

At the local level, the report shows collaboration with ICE by less than a handful of the state’s hundreds of police departments. A mere three in three counties, none of them in Essex, rendered minimal assistance. The Lawrence Township Department in Mercer took part in one ICE enforcement action. The Lakewood police in Ocean County provided ICE with non-public personal identifying information on one occasion and the Plainfield police in Union County notified ICE about one release and delayed one release, presumably the same one.


NJ Appleseed Statement on the Murder of George Floyd and the Ensuing Unrest

We condemn in the strongest terms the murder of George Floyd, who was suffocated to death last week by a Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while he gasped for breath and pleaded for mercy, as well as the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, chased and shot by vigilantes in Georgia for jogging while black, and Breonna Taylor,  shot by police in her own Louisville home. The list of people of color who have been wrongfully killed, mainly by police who typically do so with impunity, goes on and on and it has to stop.

We stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and every other group and individual who share that belief and have been exercising their First Amendment rights to proclaim it. The mass protests throughout the United States and around the world over the past week give voice to the anger and anguish of those whose cries for justice have gone unanswered for far too long. In a few instances, remarkably few given the provocations, both recent and historical, understandable frustration has boiled over into violence and property damage.

For the most part, people have stood, knelt and marched peacefully, keeping their eyes on the prize and demanding justice. In a number of instances, including some here in New Jersey, police have joined with protesters, marching and even kneeling alongside them. In too many places, however, most notably Washington D.C., in the shadow of the White House, protesters have been met with tear gas, rubber bullets, flash grenades and other forms of police violence, which we condemn as strongly as we do the murder of George Floyd. It is not only an egregious violation of the rights of the protesters but a betrayal of our values as a nation and a stain upon our country.

In our home city of Newark, NJ, where the beating of a black taxi driver by police in the summer of 1967, sparked four days of riots that left 26 people dead and hundreds injured, the past was not prelude. That was, at least in part, thanks to Mayor Ras Baraka who called a press conference on the steps of City Hall to express support for the protest, marched in the front lines and spoke before the crowd about his own experiences as a youth protesting the deaths of black people at the hands of police. The City’s top police officials likewise voiced support and denounced police brutality and the “senseless murder” of Floyd.  Much credit also goes to the organizers, People’s Organization for Progress, and its long-time leader, Larry Hamm.

For our own part, NJ Appleseed will continue to be part of the long-term, big-picture solution as we work to change institutional structures and public policies in areas that disproportionately impact low-income communities of color, including affordable health care, voting rights, community and environmental infrastructure and preserving public ownership or access to essential resources like water systems and hospitals.

Now is the time to move forward and demand structural change; we cannot return to the pre-Trump status quo.  The United States must face the ravages wrought by capitalism, and work toward establishing a just social and political order.

 

Thank you for expressing interest in the old Essex County Jail exhibit in the Newark Hahne’s Building. We are pleased to invite you to TWO upcoming events reflecting on this exhibit, its contents, and Newark history. ​We hope to see you there!​

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Incarceration- Rethinking and Reform

INCARCERATION: RETHINKING AND REFORM
Wednesday, September 18th, 6:00-7:30pm

This panel is comprised of criminal reform advocates to further explore the exhibit, In Search of the Just City: Rethinking the Old Essex County Jail. Panelists will discuss the relationship between social norms of punishment and the way society incarcerates its members judged to have violated the law. Using the 1837 Essex County Jail as a starting point, panelists will describe the criminal justice reforms they are currently involved in, such as voter enfranchisement initiatives, educational programs, and bail reform. This panel aims to stimulate discussion and provide opportunities for attendees to become involved in criminal justice and prison reform.

Speakers:
Alexander Shalom (Senior Supervising Attorney, ACLU-NJ)
Andrea McChristian (Law & Policy Director, NJ Institute for Social Justice)
Ronald Pierce (Democracy and Justice Fellow, NJ Institute for Social Justice)
Schneur Zalman Newfield (Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY)

Hosted By:
NJ Appleseed Public Interest Law Center and PLANewark

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0:00 Renee Steinhagen
9:01 Andrea McChristian
23:48 Ronald Pierce
35:16 Schneur Zalman Newfield
48:30 Alexander Shalom
1:07:11 Q&A
1:17:42 Concluding Remarks

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Preserving Newark- Past and Future

PRESERVING NEWARK: PAST AND FUTURE
Wednesday, September 25th, 6:00-7:30pm

What is the role of Historic Preservation in our growing city? How do we recognize our past wrongs while building a more vibrant future? In many ways, Newark’s long awaited Renaissance is here. But what will happen to the unique cultural and historic spaces that make our city vibrant? This panel discussion will delve deep into the future planning of our city and the role that historical places play in that development. Our panelists have a range of experience to help broaden the discussion beyond simply aesthetics and answer complicated questions about culture, finance, and urban planning. Please join us for an evening to open up the dialogue and build a path forward.

Speakers:
Dr. Marion Bolden (Former Superintendent, Newark Public Schools)
Bryony Roberts (GSAPP, Columbia University)
Craig Whitaker (Architect, City Planner, Author)
Liz Del Tufo (President, Newark Landmarks)

Moderated By:
Tyler Tourville (Chair of PLANewark, Architectural Designer)

Hosted By: Newark Landmarks and PLANewark

Yes, count me in.

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Thank You for Your (Dis)Service–Corrupt Former Newark Water Agency Head Seeks Pension Payoff

It has been nearly six years since the quasi-public entity that was once responsible for the reservoirs that supply Newark’s drinking water shut down amid widespread corruption that sent at least six people to prison and helped drive the agency into bankruptcy.

Now, the person who once ran the agency and another high-level employee–both currently doing time in federal prison for their on-the-job misdeeds–are trying to collect pensions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. And it looks like they might get their payday.

Continue reading Thank You for Your (Dis)Service–Corrupt Former Newark Water Agency Head Seeks Pension Payoff

NJ COURTS PROVIDE ICE SHIELD

I was really happy to see last week that the New Jersey courts were taking concrete action to protect people from the harsh immigration policies of the Trump Administration.

Administrative Directive 07-19, released on May 23, states the view of the judiciary “that civil immigration enforcement activities should not take place in courthouses” and that “courthouses must be viewed by the public, all parties, victims, and witnesses as a neutral and safe forum to resolve disputes.” Continue reading NJ COURTS PROVIDE ICE SHIELD

Police Use of Force Varies by Race and Region, with Fear a Major Factor

I don’t write much about criminal justice issues, but I would like to share this article entitled “How Fear Contributes to Cops’ Use of Deadly Force.”  It was written by Columbia University professors Rajiv Sethi and Brendan “Dan” O’Flaherty and posted today on The Marshall Project website.  (Dan O’Flaherty is my husband.)

Their data-driven article starts out with the troubling fact that police in the United States  kill civilians far more often than police in other countries, more than 1,000 each year, as contrasted with, for example, the combined 10 per year killed by British and German police.

Not surprisingly, there are striking racial disparities on who is at the receiving end of this police violence. For instance, black residents of Houston are four times more likely to face deadly force than white ones. In New York and Los Angeles, they are six to seven times more likely to die in police shootings. And in Chicago, they are 18 times more likely to be killed by police.

What is surprising is the regional differences that were found, which are so substantial that whites in Houston are more likely to be killed by police than blacks in New York City.

You can read the article here.

And if you find the topic of interest, read their book, published last month, called “Shadows of Doubt,” which looks at the impact of stereotypes and fear on policing and prosecution.

Yes, this is a shameless plug for my husband’s book but the book is a timely, deeply researched and thoughtful look at an important subject.

Image at top is from Wikipedia.

ACLU REPORT HIGHLIGHTS FORFEITURE FLAWS

A new report from the New Jersey affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union takes a good, hard look at civil asset forfeiture and concludes that it is prone to widespread abuse and disproportionately used against people of color.

Civil asset forfeiture, also known as civil forfeiture, and sometimes disparagingly referred to as “policing for profit” is a legal process by which law enforcement officers take people’s property away from them on mere suspicion of a crime without necessarily arresting them or bringing charges. The statutes that govern it are N.J.S.A. 2C:64-1 et seq.

The textbook case of civil forfeiture is the seizure of illegal narcotics from suspected drug dealers, as well as cash believed to have been used in or earned from narcotics transactions.

But forfeiture can involve a wide range of assets, many of which are far more innocuous. Cars, boats, houses, jewelry, art, electronics – just about anything can be seized. The report lists baseball cards, a bicycle, an iPod, shoes and laptops, among other items. Continue reading ACLU REPORT HIGHLIGHTS FORFEITURE FLAWS

DIFFERENT RULINGS ON ACCESS TO POLICE RECORDINGS

People, like me, who believe in open government, were sorely disappointed last month when the state’s highest court, usually so protective of transparency, denied access to police dash-cam recordings under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

On August 13, 2018, a sharply divided New Jersey Supreme Court held, 4-3, in Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, that such recordings were not subject to disclosure under OPRA because they were not “required by law” to be made and constituted criminal investigatory records deemed confidential under OPRA.

Just 11 days later, however, a different New Jersey court determined that the same criminal investigatory exemption did not apply to police body cams. Continue reading DIFFERENT RULINGS ON ACCESS TO POLICE RECORDINGS

DEMAND DNA TEST TO PREVENT POSSIBLE WRONGFUL EXECUTION

Until a few days ago, I had never heard of Kevin Cooper, who has been on California’s death row for more than 30 years, after being convicted of a quadruple homicide in 2003 that he apparently did not commit.

Not until I read Nicholas Kristof’s article in the May 20 New York Times, entitled “Was Kevin Cooper Framed for Murder?”

Kristof, whose opinion pieces typically concern international human rights abuses, lays out a convincing case that Cooper was, in fact,  framed.

Continue reading DEMAND DNA TEST TO PREVENT POSSIBLE WRONGFUL EXECUTION