LINDEN, NJ — The city’s mayoral race turned personal when Mayor Derek Armstead revealed in an interview with LocalSource that independent candidate John Principato was convicted of selling drugs.
During an Oct. 4 phone interview, Armstead said he helped Principato become approved to be a firefighter some 25 years ago even though “he was a convicted felon” who “had been selling drugs in our communities.”
Principato told the LocalSource in an Oct. 7 interview that the conviction has been expunged and that he has no criminal record. He said he served 36 months in a minimum-security facility for a “marijuana arrest.”
According to a Star-Ledger article from July 22, 1993, Principato was released from state prison in January of that year “after serving three years for selling marijuana to an undercover police officer in Linden.”
Principato, a 53-year-old retired firefighter who runs a construction company and a luncheonette, said he “did something that at the time was a stupid thing,” but
he has turned his life around.
“The circumstances surrounding the incident and my subsequent hiring to the fire department is what made me a strong member then and a stronger member now of my community now that I reside in as well as a true believer in law enforcement,” Principato said. “These personal, petty and divisive comments of the mayor which have no relevance to the situation for the question at hand is why I got into this race.”
The issue came to light when Principato issued a statement criticizing Armstead’s handling of personnel matters in the Linden Fire Department. In August, firefighter Mark Bullock filed a formal complaint against fire Chief Joseph Dooley, who is white, alleging the chief had used the N-word three times in his presence. Bullock said he met with Armstead about the incident.
“The mayor brushed us off, said he had to go get some sodas,” Bullock said about the meeting.
In addition fire Capt. Fred Castle, reading from a prepared statement at the City Council meeting on Sept. 17, made a series of allegations against Dooley, including that the chief had “physically assaulted” him. He also alleged that Dooley used the N-word in the presence of black firefighters, mocked the accents of Polish and Hispanic members of the department and used a homophobic slur in reference to another firefighter.
In a prepared statement given to LocalSource via email Oct. 1, Principato said he has “a zero-tolerance policy for such behavior.”
“The duties of a mayor are far-reaching and critical to the smooth functioning of a municipality,” Principato said in the statement. “Being elected mayor is not a popularity contest with a seemingly ever-expanding list of perks to enjoy. It is a job that comes with many important duties and responsibilities, a job that I hope to assume and plan on taking far more seriously than our current mayor.”
Principato said Armstead responded to the statement with the revelation about the drug charges as an attempt to “change the subject.”
“Listen, everybody has skeletons,” Principato said. “I think he’s trying to throw spaghetti against the wall, see what sticks. And he’s trying to distract all of us from the current situation. His lack of leadership, his lack of handling that situation when it came into his office. Quite frankly, he could have handled that situation in his office that day. But, he chose to go out for a soda.”
“I was arrested. It was a marijuana charge and I did some time. For the same marijuana charged today, you would be handed some (pretrial intervention) and you wouldn’t have a record at all. My record has been expunged. This has been expunged some time ago. I don’t think it’s relevant to what’s happened.”
Armstead, who is black, said the formal complaint filed by Bullock should be handled by city’s affirmative action officer.
However, Janice Brown, who was the compliance officer when Bullock filed, retired at the end of August. Bullock has since filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“I think John was very much aware that during the time this complaint was filed, our affirmative action officer was retiring,” Armstead said. “We were left in a situation where we didn’t have a person to handle this particular situation, but nonetheless, we are doing the best we can. We want to see the matter resolved. I don’t know how he can be critical. What would he have done? That’s my question. What would he have done in this situation?”
Armstead said he was a member of the Linden City Council when it considered Principato for a post in the Fire Department. He said he had consulted with his father, who was a friend of Principato’s father. Armstead said he wanted to give Principato a second chance.
“That was a very close vote, too, to give him that second chance,” Armstead said. “It was really split right down the center and I believe at the time I may have been the critical vote to allow him to be a fireman. There was a lot of discussion at the time and the council was divided at the time in regards to whether he should be given a second chance.”
Armstead said the matter was further complicated by the fact that a statute requires firefighters to be living in the city from the time they pass their test until their appointment by the council. He said Principato technically didn’t meet the criteria since he was in prison.
According to the 1993 Star-Ledger article, Councilman Edwin Schulhafer, a former city fire chief, made a motion calling for the governing body to rescind its appointment of Principato. According to the article, the council had unanimously approved his appointment weeks earlier, but was “informed that the candidate had served a prison sentence, but was never told the full extent of his crime. The councilman said that, had he known more about Principato’s background, he would have voted against the appointment.”
Armstead said he continued to support Principato.
“A lot of people were critical of me when we decided to give John Principato a chance to be a fireman considering he was a convicted felon,” Armstead said. “He had been selling drugs in our communities. He was convicted and did jail time and technically was not supposed to be a fireman. A lot of people were critical of me when I decided to give him a second opportunity. So, I don’t know where he’s at with this whole thing with me being critical with regard to what the chief said.”
Dooley, who was sworn in as fire chief in September 2015, declined to address the accusations.
“What I’m going to suggest is that you speak to the mayor’s office,” Dooley said in a Sept. 21 phone conversation. “I’m obviously not going to comment on something that’s a personnel matter. Your best bet is to contact the mayor’s office and see what they have to say.”