Ethics complaints filed against Elizabeth BOE

ELIZABETH, NJ — Several members of the Elizabeth Board of Education have been hit with two separate ethics complaints.

Elizabeth BOE members Jose Rodriguez, Daniel Nina, Maria Carvalho and Stanley Neron have been called out by former assistant board secretary Donald Goncalves, who was terminated in January, and Maria Lorenz, a parent-advocate and BOE candidate in the Elizabeth school district.

Goncalves, who was an employee of the Elizabeth BOE for 15 years, filed ethics charges in March against Rodriguez, Nina, Carvalho, and Neron for violation of the School Ethics Act, while Lorenz filed ethics charges against Rodriguez.

According to the complaint obtained by LocalSource filed by Goncalves, the board adopted a resolution on January 7 to terminate Goncalves’s position for alleged reasons of economy. Nina, Neron and Rodriguez voted in favor of the termination, while Carvalho abstained. “Complainant asserts that because respondent Nina has an aunt in the district that is employed as a security guard and thereby, was supervised and “under the oversight” of complainant, respondent Nina should have abstained from any participation in the discussion or vote on the termination of complainant’s position.”

In addition, Goncalves asserts that in June the board also voted to create the position of acting assistant superintendent for human resources, voting to appoint Elizabeth Councilman Frank Cuesta to the position at an annual salary allegedly higher than the salary Goncalves received. According to the complaint, Rodriguez, Neron, Nina and Carvalho — all of whom are employed by the city of Elizabeth — had a clear conflict of interest when they voted in favor of Cuesta’s appointment.

Rodriguez, Neron, Nina, and Carvalho did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment.

Goncalves told LocalSource in a phone call that Nina, who was found by the school ethics commission to be in violation, has an aunt who works as a security guard in the district. Goncalves, in his capacity as board secretary, supervised this guard and as such, Nina’s vote was a conflict of interest. “Dan Nina had a conflict of interest but never disclosed this,” Goncalves said.

Because of Nina’s questionable vote, Goncalves said that there were not enough votes to fire him, and thus his termination was illegitimate. “There were not enough votes to fire me,” said Goncalves. “There were only four votes, and five are needed to take a personnel action.”

Although the board members responded to the complaint by stating that the charges were frivolous and retaliatory, the School Ethics Commission has called for several of the complaints against the beleaguered board members to be heard before the Office of Administrative Law.

Lorenz, who is running for a seat on the board in the upcoming election, filed ethics charges in July against Rodriguez for allegedly voting in a lawyer that made a contribution to his campaign months before Varady was sworn in Feb. 18.

Lorenz charges that attorney Robert Varady, of the law firm of Lacorte, Bundy, Varady, & Kinsella, was voted in as the board’s general co-counsel just weeks after Varady made a financial contribution to Rodriguez’s campaign.

LocalSource has obtained the document showing a monetary contribution to Rodriguez in the amount of $375 made by Varady dated Dec. 8, 2015.

Lorenz alleges in her complaint that Rodriguez violated ethics code 18A:12-24 of the NJ Department of Education School Ethics Act for conflicts of interest. “No school official or member of his immediate family shall have an interest in a business organization or engage in any business, transaction, or professional activity, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest.”

If further states that, “no school official shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges, advantages or employment for himself, members of his immediate family or others,” and that “no school official shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he, a member of his immediate family, or a business organization in which he has an interest, has a direct or indirect financial involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment. No school official shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he or a member of his immediate family has a personal involvement that is or creates some benefit to the school official or member of his immediate family.”

In her complaint, Lorenz alleges that Rodriguez committed an ethical violation by using his position as as a school board member to benefit himself and others. “Mr. Rodriguez is also in clear violation of the board’s own policy on banning pay to play,” the complaint reads. “The fact is that monetary contributions were made by Mr. Varady, a named partner in his firm, precisely 28 days before a re-organization meeting of the board. Mr. Rodriguez voted in the affirmative to appoint him as General Counsel to the Board of Education on Feb. 18, 2016.

Clearly, Mr. Rodriguez’s judgment has been severely impaired when he accepts money from a name partner and votes the firm in, instead of abstaining on the resolution to appoint Mr. Varady’s firm to the board.”

According to the complaint, a resolution for the appointment of Varady, Lacorte, Bundy & Kinsella as general counsel was presented at the Jan. 7 re-organization meeting of the board, and the appointment went through at that time. “Approved board minutes reflect Mr. Rodriguez conveniently excused himself at 8:40 p.m. right before the vote of the resolution and returned 6 minutes later, at 8:46 p.m.”

Although Rodriguez did not vote at the January 7 meeting, he did vote on Varady’s appointment at the Feb. 18 meeting of the board.

Lorenz further states that it is her belief that the “moral compass on this board member is ‘out of service,’ and asks the School Ethics Commission to take formal action “on this egregious and blatant unethical act.”

Pat Politano, spokesperson for the Elizabeth school district, said that the charges are “wild ethics complaints. These are baseless complaints of failed and failing political candidates,” Politano told LocalSource in a phone call. “It’s political silly season in Elizabeth. Wild ethics complaints are as common as falling leaves. These women are on the ballot. How much more political can these folks be?” he said of Lorenz and her running mate, Christina Moreira.

Lorenz said that she once backed Rodriguez and thought that he believed in transparency, but that things changed when she came to the conclusion that the district’s students were not the board’s priority. She also cites the board’s hiring of Councilman Frank Cuesta as assistant superintendent of human resources as a conflict of interest.

Cuesta, who is councilman-at-large in Elizabeth as well as the city’s Democratic chairman, is a political ally of Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage. “Once I saw that the majority was on a different agenda, which was not our kids, and the hiring of Councilman Frank Cuesta which I deemed a conflict of interest, I started to do some research on the board members until I noticed some connections of contributors and those the majority voted for,” Lorenz told LocalSource in an email.

Lorenz said that she believes that the ethics charge shows what she calls a “clear picture of pay to play.” Lorenz said, “the fact that election reports show the repeated donations of contractors, board of education employees or potential employees is astonishing. Let’s face it. The city has control of both the school and city budget which, in a sense, has made them sloppy in their actions and they believe they are above reproach.”

Lorenz said that she hopes the School Ethics Commission sees the case for what it is and hands down an appropriate reprimand or a sanction to prevent the hiring of friends and avoid any conflicts of interest. “I hope that this case will be precedent-setting and serve as an advisory opinion for future cases,’ she said. “On a local level, I would hope that the school board pass a resolution prohibiting current employees from donating to current board members or candidate elect. Christina Moreira and I have taken it upon ourselves to not accept donations from current BOE employees or any special interest groups.”
Moreira is a parent-advocate in the district, and is running for a seat on the board alongside Lorenz.

Lorenz said that politics need to stay out of the district’s classrooms. “I believe that city politics plays an enormous role,” Lorenz asserts. “You have a governor who has been contributing money since about 2008, a mayor that endorses and financially supports school board candidates and incumbents, and councilmen that runaround walking these candidates ward to ward and also raising money themselves to donate to the election funds of the candidates, such as the case of Frank Cuesta, who recently held a dinner and donated the proceeds to the candidates who vote on his position and he also holds vote over theirs.”

Lorenz said that after years of advocating for students in the district, attending every school board meeting and educating herself as to the inner workings of the BOE, she said that she is well aware of the power that Bollwage and his allies have in the school district. “I believe that the city throws thousands of dollars and selects candidates that can be controlled via their jobs,” said Lorenz, citing specific city and county employees and relatives of majority board members that allegedly hold employment. “Dan Nina, Stan Neron, Maria Carvalho, Jose Rodriguez’s brother, Charlene Bathelus’ brother, and Stephanie Goncalves work for the county,” Lorenz said.

Lorenz also believes that more parents in the district need to get involved, although she said that many are afraid to do so. “Most don’t because of the vicious attacks perpetrated and condoned by the political machine,” she claimed, also stating that she thinks that most district parents are unaware of many of the alleged ethics issues connected to the board. “The public needs to be vigilant and hold board members accountable for their actions or lack thereof. In my opinion, I believe that the majority is complicit with this ethics issue, as they have chosen to hire another attorney and spend more tax dollars to defend him,” Lorenz said of Rodriguez. “I find this ironic as he used to complain of how many lawyers we had and fees spent last year.”

Goncalves told LocalSource that he believes his position was terminated because he supported board members who were not aligned with Bollwage. “Essentially I was public enemy No. 1,” Goncalves told LocalSource in a phone call. “They didn’t like me because I supported other board members.”

Goncalves spoke to the power that he believes Bollwage, along with state Senator Raymond Lesniak, wield over the district. “We’ve been in opposition to Bollwage and Lesniak,” Goncalves said. “I was involved in running campaigns of the opposition.”