LINDEN, NJ — Mayor Derek Armstead escalated his political battle with state Sen. Nicholas Scutari on Feb. 19, when the City Council voted to form a committee to investigate whether the legislator had been paid for work he did not perform while a city employee.
The council voted 6-4 in favor of the resolution creating the Municipal Council Investigatory Committee, which is composed of Armstead-aligned council members Peter Brown, Ralph Strano and Alfred Mohammed, and will have subpoena powers as it investigates Scutari.
The senator, who represents the 22nd Legislative District, which includes Linden, Clark and Rahway, served as the municipal prosecutor for about 16 years before being replaced in January by the council.
According to a copy of the resolution LocalSource obtained from the Mayor’s Office, the City Council “is of the opinion that based upon information received and compiled, that a certain former municipal prosecutor, who was required to be present three days a week in court, not including holidays, vacation or personal days, has taken more time off than what was permitted and still received payment for services that were not rendered.”
Brown said at the council meeting that he and other members of the budget committee had “found something that stuck out as far as time not accounted for.”
“It’s not a matter of opinion,” Brown said. “It’s a fact that the documents here that no one wants to talk about, a total of 127 days were missing, two years. That directly costs taxpayers. We’re talking about pension issues. We’re talking about theft of time.”
Although Scutari wasn’t mentioned by name in the resolution and at the council meeting, Armstead issued a Feb. 20 release saying, “I support the decision to investigate Nick Scutari’s absenteeism. Taxpayers will no longer tolerate waste, fraud and abuse in city government.”
While serving as municipal prosecutor and earning $84,659 a year, Scutari was absent at least 62 times in 2018 and 65 times in 2017, according to the statement.
Council members John Francis Roman and Gretchen Hickey, Armando Medina and Rhashonna Cosby opposed the formation of the investigative committee at the council meeting. Roman and Hickey, along with a few members of the public, alleged that one of the members of the committee was investigated in the past or is currently being investigated.
“We have a police department,” Hickey said. “We have a prosecutor’s office. We have a sheriff’s department. We have the FBI. We have an attorney general. I don’t know why there needs to be an investigation committee. It’s pretty ironic that — I’m trying to figure out how to say this without being too personal and inappropriate. You can investigate me any day. There’s a few people I think might be on the investigation committee that should be investigated themselves because they’re always putting fear into others and it’s not fair anymore.”
Resident Kelly Vlasic asked, “If they’re investigating someone, let’s say, for, I don’t know, misuse of funds or theft, I would think that at that particular time whoever’s doing the investigation should not have been investigated themselves for any of those matters. So, are we going to be doing any background into the people who are investigating certain things … to make sure they have not been investigated themselves for any of the things they are looking to accuse somebody else of?”
Toward the end of the more than four-hour meeting, a video of which was reviewed by LocalSource, Brown said, “I’ll put my record up against some of the individuals here who want to talk over and over.”
Scutari called the committee “political theater” during a phone interview Feb. 25, adding, “It’s a political witch hunt and it’s further evidenced by the fact that they have been threatening this for me since I failed to endorse the mayor and council president. And the same mayor that’s been accused of theft of time in the county of Union.
“There were rumors that he produced no work product, that he slept on the job. He literally slept in his office. That’s out there, that they had to move his office because of snoring. And that he wasn’t at work when he was supposed to be at work. He was doing his mayoral duties or developing his house because he did that, too.”
Armstead worked in information technology for the county before quitting to become the full-time mayor about three years ago.
“I no longer work at the county,” Armstead said. “I left my job at the county. I didn’t get fired or anything else. I left my job at the county so that I can dedicate more time to being a good mayor in this town. My hours that I put in here are proof positive of my work ethic.”
The investigative committee is the latest in a back-and-forth between Armstead and Scutari in the past year.
Armstead backed Scutari’s opponent, Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, in the race for the county Democratic Party chair position last winter. Then Scutari, the Linden Democratic Party chair, endorsed Hickey in the June primary over Armstead, the incumbent. After Armstead prevailed in the primary to win the Democratic nomination, and subsequently won the general election, he replaced Scutari as municipal prosecutor.
After Michele Yamakaitis resigned the 8th Ward council seat to become council president, the Scutari-led Linden Democratic Party rebuffed suggestions for replacements from Armstead allies, instead nominating three others for the seat. The City Council voted 8-1 with one abstention at the Jan. 15 council meeting to keep the seat open until the next general election, prompting Scutari to sue to seat Paul Coates, one of his three replacement offerings.
Administrative Law Judge Katherine Dupuis denied Scutari’s request in court documents dated Feb. 14, however a final hearing on the matter is scheduled for March 15. At that time, attorneys for the Linden Democratic Committee will seek to have Dupuis’ order reversed and allow Coates to immediately assume the 8th Ward seat.