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.


WHY YOU SHOULD VOTE “NO” ON BALLOT QUESTION 3

A little more than a month from now, New Jersey voters will start receiving their mail-in ballots for November’s general election. In addition to all the candidates running for office, those ballots will contain three statewide questions on which voters will also get to decide.

You have probably heard a lot about Ballot Question No. 1, whether or not to legalize marijuana.

Ballot Question 2 would extend an existing $250 property tax deduction for veterans who served in time of war to those who served in peacetime as well. It follows a ballot question from last year that extended the same deduction to retirement communities that house veterans, which were required to pass the value of the deduction on to the veterans.

I am here to talk about the third question, which is a bit more complicated and has not received much attention: a proposed amendment to the New Jersey constitutional provisions that govern redistricting, the process by which state legislative maps are redrawn every 10 years based on updated Census data. Continue reading WHY YOU SHOULD VOTE “NO” ON BALLOT QUESTION 3

Appleseed Network Applauds Thursday’s Supreme Court Decision Upholding DACA

The Appleseed Network celebrates the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on Thursday morning, June 18th, in favor of blocking the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The Court found that the Trump administration’s September 2017 move to terminate the program was “arbitrary and capricious,” and that the impact of the program’s termination on DACA recipients – at least 650,000 young immigrants brought to the US as children – was not properly taken into account.

DACA is a program initially announced in 2012 by former President Barack Obama that allows undocumented young people across the country to harness their skills and education to work and contribute to their communities. Dreamers (those protected under DACA) are able to enroll in college, obtain driver’s licenses, and continue their careers in the place they know as home. Under President Trump’s termination of DACA, new applications to the program were no longer accepted. Thursday morning, the Court’s positive ruling reaffirmed that DACA recipients will continue to be able to live in the US without fear of deportation, as well as pursue higher education and gainful employment.

DACA recipients are highly involved in communities throughout the US, practice political and civic engagement, and have been woven into the economic fabric of America. The Center for American Progress reported that DACA recipients and their households contribute $5.7 billion in federal taxes and $3.1 billion in state and local taxes annually. Additionally, according to the Migration Policy Institute, “55% of DACA recipients are employed, amounting to 382,000 workers [and] 62% of those not in the labor force are enrolled in school.” During the current COVID-19 crisis – which has taken the lives of at least 120,000 people in the US – it is crucial that we acknowledge the 29,000 Dreamers who are working as health care workers and home care providers on the frontlines, and the more than 150,000 Dreamers who are essential workers providing education, growing and producing food, and keeping shelves stocked. Appleseed works to promote equity, security, and justice for children and families across the US and Mexico, and we applaud the DACA program as both a pathway for young undocumented immigrants to achieve their educational and economic goals as well as a recognition of immigrants’ inherent human rights, no matter their citizenship status.

While the ruling is a huge win for immigrants and immigration justice activists around the nation, it is only the first step in securing permanent protections for Dreamers. The American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, passed by the House of Representatives in Spring of 2019, would provide these protections and create a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients. We urge the Senate to pass this bill in order to recognize the right of Dreamers to live free of fear and to pursue their dreams on American soil.

The Appleseed Network stands in solidarity with immigrants when we say, #HomeisHere.

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.

 

NJ NEEDS SAFER VOTING MACHINES

NJ Appleseed has been working for many years to protect the integrity of the voting process and continues to do so.

It played a key role in the passage of a 2008 bill requiring that election results be audited to insure that they are correct. That law has never been implemented because audits require paper ballots and until 2019, all but one county in NJ used purely digital paperless voting machines.

More recently, NJ Appleseed has supported replacing those digital machines with a system that voting security experts tells us in the most secure: auditable paper ballots that are hand-marked by the voter, rather than the machine, and read by optical scanners, to reduce the risk of tampering.

NJ Appleseed was part of a campaign in Essex County, led by the grass roots group SOMa Action (from South Orange and Maplewood), that recently succeeded when the Freeholders voted in January to approve the purchase of such a system, the first in New Jersey. It will be in place for the 2020 primary and general election.

The next step will be to try to persuade other counties to do the same.  Here is my op-ed  on the subject, which was recently published in the Star Ledger and posted on its website.

Remembering David Perry Davis

I was greatly saddened to learn a few weeks ago that David Perry Davis died unexpectedly on October 3, at the age of 55.

David was a passionate and principled advocate who, probably more than any other individual, improved the quality of justice in the New Jersey court system for poor people who fall behind on child support.

In addition to the countless clients and colleagues whose lives he touched and improved through his practice as a family lawyer, David won two landmark court decisions that protect parents who owe child support from being locked up or barred from driving just because they cannot afford to pay. Continue reading Remembering David Perry Davis

RULING ALLOWS ELECTOR DISCRETION BUT MIGHT IMPEDE EFFORT TO CIRCUMVENT ELECTORAL COLLEGE

Donald Trump won the Presidency in 2016 despite being trounced by Hillary Clinton in the popular vote.

Thanks to the Electoral College, the profoundly undemocratic body that actually elects our Presidents and Vice-Presidents, Trump’s slight margin of victory in a few key states outweighed the millions more votes cast nationwide by those who preferred Clinton.

The Electoral College has been enshrined in our system from the start, in Article II, section 1, paragraph 3 of the Constitution. It was modified in 1804, with ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, which requires separate votes for President and Vice-President.

Most years, the results of the Electoral College vote match up with the popular vote.  But after 2016, when it thwarted the will of the people for the second time in 16 years (and for two of our last three Presidents), many people realized that we must do something about it if we want to make sure that the person who wins the most votes is the one who becomes President. Continue reading RULING ALLOWS ELECTOR DISCRETION BUT MIGHT IMPEDE EFFORT TO CIRCUMVENT ELECTORAL COLLEGE

MORE VOTERS PURGED WHERE SUPREME COURT LIFTED RESTRICTIONS

When the United States Supreme Court weakened Voting Rights Act protections in 2013, many worried that it would open the floodgates to a new wave of voter suppression.

There was good reason to be concerned, as the Brennan Center for Justice has once again confirmed.

A report it released in July 2018 found that from 2014 to 2016—the two years following the 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529—almost 16 million people throughout the U.S. were removed from voting rolls.  That was almost four million more than the number who were removed from voter lists between 2006 and 2008, a roughly 33% increase that far exceeded the growth in total population (6%) and total registered voters (18%) over that same time frame.

The Brennan Center also found that the purging occurred at a higher rate in those areas, mainly in the South, that because of their history of discrimination had been subject to the protections abrogated by the Supreme Court in Shelby.  For the two election cycles between 2012 and 2016, those so-called preclearance jurisdictions, which were let off the hook by the Shelby ruling, had purge rates significantly higher than elsewhere. The Center calculated that if those jurisdictions had remained subject to the previous constraints, two million fewer voters would have been struck from the lists. Texas alone erased more than 363,000 voters in the first election cycle after Shelby.

Now, a follow-up report, made public on August 1, has found that the heightened rate of voter purges continued between 2016 and 2018. Continue reading MORE VOTERS PURGED WHERE SUPREME COURT LIFTED RESTRICTIONS

REFUSAL TO EXPAND MEDICAID KILLED 15,000+, NEW STUDY FINDS

More than 20 U.S. state governments betrayed the health and well-being of their residents five years ago when they decided against expanding Medicaid pursuant to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) aka Obamacare. Now, thanks to a just published study, we have a good idea of the human cost: nearly 16,000 deaths over the four-year period from January 2014, when the expansion initially took effect, through the end of 2017.

The study, released on July 21, looked at what would have occurred if Medicaid had been expanded nationwide in 2014. Based on the differences in mortality between states that expanded and those that didn’t, the study found that 15,600 deaths in the non-expansion states would have been prevented if those states too had expanded Medicaid. Continue reading REFUSAL TO EXPAND MEDICAID KILLED 15,000+, NEW STUDY FINDS