ELIZABETH, NJ — A former Elizabeth Board of Education attorney has been awarded close to a half million dollars as part of a settlement stemming from the Elizabeth school lunch scandal surrounding a former school board president charged with illegally receiving free lunches for her children.
Kirk Nelson will be receiving $490,000 for his attorney’s fees from the board as part of a statute that requires the board to pay those expenses because Nelson was acquitted of all charges.
Nelson, of Roselle, was acquitted last year — after a five-week trial and less than an hour of deliberation — of interfering with the state’s investigation into the federally funded lunch program that serves Elizabeth’s low-income students.
Nelson had been accused of official misconduct, tampering with public records, hindering prosecution records and conspiracy.
Despite the fact that Nelson had a contract with the board, he was terminated from his position as board attorney once he was indicted.
In 2013, the Attorney General’s Office indicted former board president Juan Donoso after he was accused of covering up a falsified lunch application filled out by his wife.
At the time, the AG had alleged that Nelson, along with a second board attorney, had helped to orchestrate the coverup after state police subpoenaed the school district for applications for the free lunch program.
The AG claimed that Nelson, along with the second board attorney, had arranged for Donoso’s application to be pulled from the district’s records, then changed from free to paid status, after which the files were returned.
Nelson, along with Donoso and the second board attorney, were charged with official misconduct, conspiracy, tampering with public records or information, tampering with or fabricating physical evidence and hindering apprehension or prosecution.
Following his acquittal, Nelson submitted a claim to the board for reimbursement of all legal fees and expenses he had incurred.
Timothy Donohue, attorney for Nelson, told LocalSource that the AG should never have indicted Nelson.
“The AG never should have charged my client,” Nelson said in an April 4 email. “He was completely innocent. He did nothing wrong. He followed the advice of his attorney. In fact, before he was indicted, I produced sworn evidence that he was innocent and the AG’s office simply ignored it.”
According to Donohue, the statute requires the BOE to pay all legal fees when an employee is charged and then acquitted of all charges,”
“That is why the Board of Ed had to pick up the tab for all of Mr. Nelson’s legal fees,” Donohue said.
Donohue said that he intends to sue the board of education for breach of employment.
“This has been an extremely difficult time for my client,” Donohue said. “As a result of being falsely accused of this crime, he was fired by the Elizabeth Board of Education even though he had a guaranteed contract. We intend to sue the board for breach of that employment agreement and we are confident that we will prevail.”
Elizabeth has long been under scrutiny by state investigators regarding its federal lunch program.
In 2014, former school board president Marie Munn was convicted of falsifying applications to obtain free meals for her own children. According to prosecutors at the time, Munn was found guilty of slashing her household income by about $100,000, allowing her children to receive $2,649 in free lunch benefits to which they were not entitled. She was later sentenced to probation.
Elizabeth School District spokesman Pat Politano issued an April 8 statement to LocalSource.
“After Mr. Nelson was found not guilty in criminal court, the Board of Education reached a settlement agreement to reimburse his defense attorney’s fees, in accordance with state law,” Politano said. “At this time, the school district is not aware of any other pending legal action related to Mr. Nelson.”