ELIZABETH, NJ — A judge has determined that four members of the Elizabeth Board of Education violated state ethics rules when they voted to give a city councilman a job in the district.
Elizabeth BOE members Maria Carvalho, Stanley Neron, Daniel Nina, and Jose Rodriguez have been censured by the state’s School Ethics Commission after a preliminary decision was rendered against them by the state of New Jersey Office of Administrative Law.
Two complaints, both of which addressed the same situation, were addressed.
Administrative Law Judge Thomas Betancourt handed down the March 20 decision after the School Ethics Commission determined that there was probable cause in former BOE member Rafael Fajardo’s ethics complaint filed against BOE members Carvalho, Neron and Nina.
The SEC also determined that there was probable cause in former assistant BOE secretary Donald Goncalves’ ethics complaint filed against Nina, Carvalho, Neron and Rodriguez.
Carvalho, Neron, and Rodriguez did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment. Nina declined to comment.
The case is now in the hands of the SEC, which can adopt, modify or reject the decision. If no action is taken by the SEC within 45 days, the decision becomes final.
The ethics complaints filed by both Fajardo and Goncalves surrounds the hiring of Elizabeth Councilman and Democratic Chairman Frank Cuesta as the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources.
Fajardo, who filed a complaint with the SEC on Feb. 17, 2016, alleged that the votes of Carvalho, Neron and Nina to appoint Cuesta violated the New Jersey School Ethics Act.
In the complaint, Fajardo claimed that the named board members’ personal or financial involvement with Cuesta presented a conflict of interest, impaired their independent judgment, and that they used their official positions to secure unwarranted privileges and employment.
Goncalves, who filed a complaint with the SEC on March 1, 2016, also alleged that the votes of Carvalho, Neron, Nina and Rodriguez to appoint Cuesta violated the New Jersey School Ethics Act.
The complaint filed by Goncalves also alleged that Nina’s vote to abolish the position of assistant board secretary violated school ethics acts, alleging that since Nina’s aunt was employed by the board as a security guard and the assistant board secretary had control over security, there was a conflict of interest.
At the school board’s reorganization meeting in January 2016, the board abolished the job of assistant board secretary, which immediately eradicated Goncalves’ job. The board cited budget reasons for abolishing the position, but just moments later they hired Cuesta to fill the position.
The stage was set during the 2015 elections, after two rival political factions in Elizabeth, both in the Democratic Party, endorsed different slates of candidates for three contested BOE seats.
J. Christian Bollwage’s faction — the minority faction at that time — supported Carvalho, Neron, Nina and Rodriguez.
After the election, the Fajardo-backed faction yielded its majority to a group supported by Bollwage and state Sen. Raymond Lesniak.
Cuesta is a political ally of Bollwage and has campaigned for mayor-supported candidates for the school board.
Carvalho is employed by the City of Elizabeth as the executive assistant for the Department of Planning and Community Development, while Neron is employed by the City of Elizabeth as the executive assistant director of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Rodriguez’s brother, Eduardo Rodriguez, is employed by the city as director of the Department of Planning and Community Development.
Nina is employed as a firefighter for the city, while his aunt, Adolfina Altagracia Crespo, was appointed by the board as a security guard at the January 2016 reorganization meeting.
In their response to the complaint, Carvalho, Nina, Neron and Rodriguez argue that Cuesta was highly qualified for the position of assistant superintendent and that he had no direct supervisory authority over them. They also argue that Cuesta had recognized the potential for conflict when he wrote a letter to the Elizabeth city clerk prior to his appointment by the board.
“Most interesting is that Respondents failed to recognize the same potential for conflict by voting on Mr. Cuesta’s appointment rather than recusing themselves,” reads Betancourt’s decision. “Mr. Cuesta’s letter cannot remove a potential for a conflict for Respondents. Mr. Cuesta certainly believed there was potential for a conflict. The standard is what a reasonable member of the public would believe.”
Betancourt states in his decision that, “Carvalho, Nina and Neron had indirect financial involvement in voting for Mr. Cuesta’s appointment. They were employees of the City of Elizabeth and Mr. Cuesta was a sitting councilman. This indirect financial involvement could lead a reasonable member of the public to conclude it might reasonably be expected to impair their objectivity and independence of judgment.”
Betancourt also writes that the votes of Carvalho, Nina, Neron and Rodriguez to appoint Cuesta “could lead a reasonable member of the public to conclude that the votes were to secure unwarranted privileges, advantages or employment for themselves or others.”
Betancourt, however, ruled that Nina’s vote to abolish the position of assistant board secretary was not in violation.
Elizabeth School District spokesperson, Pat Politano, issued a statement to LocalSource regarding the judge’s preliminary decision on March 24.
“Today’s action is an opinion and recommendation from an administrative law judge and not a decision,” said Politano. “The school district will argue before the School Ethics Commission that the recommendation misstates the relationship and responsibilities of an Elizabeth city councilman. Mr. Cuesta does not make hiring decisions or salary decisions solely. He does not have supervisory authority over city employees. The school district maintains that all of its Board of Education members have acted responsibly and ethically and looks forward to making that case to the School Ethics Commission.”
Fajardo told LocalSource that the initial decision handed down against the BOE members is a victory for the school district.
“I don’t see this as a victory for Rafael Fajardo,” he said in a recent phone interview. “My concern is the school system in the City of Elizabeth, and that school system is in the hands of a political machine that is not interested in what’s best for the kids.”
Fajardo said that his many years in the district has been spent building schools and implementing many different programs, and that his work in the district has earned him the right to speak out.
“What independence can there be when five individuals’ livelihoods are connected to the City of Elizabeth?” Fajardo said. “The mayor can get rid of them very quickly. I think I have earned the right to speak because my record in the district for the last 20 years speaks for itself.”
Craig Exelbirt, a former Elizabeth councilman, finance director and Democratic chairman and currently a government ethicist and reform advocate, called out the board, as well as Politano.
“I would like to underscore that upon adoption by the state School Ethics Commission within 45 days, the judge’s decision becomes operative and so ordered,” Exelbirt told LocalSource in a March 30 email. “It is stated clearly as a decision, not an opinion.”
Exelbirt noted that the ALJ’s decision on the BOE members “is in fact and by law a decision within the executive branch of state government of ‘Findings of Fact, Legal Analysis and Conclusions’ reported to the SEC for adoption with the recommendation for an Order of Censure of the Elizabeth four School Board members for violation of the state School Ethics Act.”
According to Exelbirt, Politano’s attempt to downplay the charges is disingenuous and disrespectful.
“The statement issued on the subject by the board’s public relations contractor was an ignorant and disrespectful attempt by a hired political hack to downplay the egregiousness and wide-ranging implications of what had transpired,” Exelbirt said.
“The board’s PR guy is stating that the judge is wrong and in error. That is an unprofessional representation for a public institution of education to make at taxpayers’ expense. It fails to acknowledge that they serve the public at their expense and publicly recognize the need for itself to address its ethical failings and to begin on a path to repair and not repeat them.”
Fajardo said that it’s the taxpayers who end up paying the price for the board’s actions.
“The people of the City of Elizabeth are paying for it,” Fajardo said. “We have a very strong and corrupt system headed by Ray Lesniak and Chris Bollwage. I’m not afraid to say it. The sphere of influence of these people is so vast. This is organized corruption.