Armstead-led Linden council ousts Scutari as prosecutor

Photo Courtesy of Sen. Nick Scutari’s official Facebook page
State Sen. Nick Scutari, left, appears with Linden Mayor Derek Armstead at a Martin Luther King Day event on Jan. 21.

LINDEN, NJ — State Sen. Nick Scutari, who served as city prosecutor for about 16 years, was removed from the position by a vote of the City Council at its Jan. 15 meeting.
The council, the majority aligned with Scutari’s political rival, Mayor Derek Armstead, voted to replace him with Scotch Plains-based attorney Deirdre Mason.

The assistant prosecutor, Daniel McCarthy, also was removed and replaced by former county Freeholder Mohamed Jalloh.
After the meeting, Armstead denied that Scutari’s ouster was politically motivated, but the move comes in the wake of last years’ events in which Armstead backed Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr for the Union County Committee chair against Scutari. In fact, Armstead ran alongside Mahr to be vice chairman.

Scutari, who represents District 22, which includes Clark, Linden and Rahway, among other municipalities, won by a 412-341 vote and as county party chairman endorsed Councilwoman Gretchen Hickey for mayor over the incumbent Armstead in the June 2018 primary. Armstead overcame the disadvantage, won the primary and now has six council members aligned with him: Peter Brown, Barry Javick, Alfred Mohammed, Ralph Strano, recently elected council president Michele Yamakaitis and Lisa Ormon, the mayor’s sister.

The council voted not to fill the 8th Ward seat left vacant when Yamakaitis was selected as council president. That move, as well as the one to replace Scutari, was characterized by Hickey at the Jan. 15 meeting as “personal, political issues and paybacks.” She said removing an experienced prosecutor who lives in the city for one who doesn’t was part of a “personal agenda.”

“Crime has changed immensely in our city and we need to make sure we have a prosecutor who knows the history, the players, the habitual criminals and certainly the troublemakers,” Hickey said. “With our police department doing an amazing job moving in a positive direction under Chief (David) Hart, increased manpower on our department, the zero tolerance for bad behavior on our streets, it certainly will be unfair to all if their hard work and daily work fell apart in our courtrooms.”

During the meeting John Principato, who ran as an independent against Armstead in the mayoral race, questioned Martin’s qualifications for the position. City attorney Daniel Antonelli said Martin is “more than qualified” to serve as city prosecutor.
After the meeting, Armstead denied that the move to oust Scutari as prosecutor was politically motivated. He said he didn’t push to remove him after not receiving his support during the 2014 mayoral race.

Armstead said the move was a financial one, adding that since Scutari “is never here” the city has to spend a lot of money on other prosecutors to handle the job while he’s attending to his Senate duties.

“If that was the case, I would have ousted him last year because he didn’t support me the year before, when I ran as a committee person,” Armstead said. “If it was about him not endorsing me, I would have gotten rid of him when I had the votes a year ago. I still kept him on. The reality is we’re wasting a lot of money and he’s never here.”

Antonelli said during the meeting that Mason’s yearly starting salary will be about $5,000 less than what Scutari had been earning.
Scutari was not present at the meeting. During a phone interview on Jan. 19, he said “it was an honor to serve the citizens of Linden in that capacity for the past 16 years.

“It’s a tough job. I enjoyed and I think we did a lot of good. We upheld the laws and I appreciate the time I had and the willingness to serve for those years.”

Scutari refused to comment on whether his removal was politically motivated. However, Principato said during the Jan. 15 meeting that it was “political retribution.”

“I think that this is going to be detrimental to the citizens of Linden (to lose someone who) has a vast of amount of experience and replacing them with someone that no one even knows,” Principato said. “This just baffled my mind, but it’s par for the course at the same time. It is. I don’t think we should be replacing chief municipal prosecutors on whims.”

The Scutari-led county Democrats did not endorse the incumbent Jalloh for another term in last June’s primary. Jalloh supported Mahr in her unsuccessful bid for county chairman last year against Scutari.