ELIZABETH — An admistrative law judge rejected a claim that two Elizabeth school officials used school records to obtain phone numbers for political robo-calls in 2011.
In a 35-page opinion issued late last week, the Office of Administrative Law Judge Leslie Z. Celentano dismissed charges brought against an Elizabeth Board of Education Assistant Superintendent of Schools Jerome Dunn and the school Information Technology director Alberto Marsal.
The judge’s decision is a matter of law, but the complaint was an ethics complaint and therefore was automatically sent back to the School Ethics Commission for any further possible action. Filing exceptions, which are similar to but not the same a legal appeals, are not uncommon in cases of this nature. There is no right to appeal the decision.
The charges, brought to the School Ethics Commission by political allies of Mayor Chris Bollwage and Democrat State Sen. Ray Lesniak, according to sources, charged Marsal with obtaining telephone numbers from school records and giving them to campaign workers for Dunn so robo-calls could be made on his behalf in the 2011 primary election. Dunn was Lesniak’s opponent in that election.
The political nature of the charges were brought out under testimony from Michelle Cetta, a Bollwage supporter who filed the complaint, and Susan Mettlen, a former board employee now working as a director of student assessment at Union County College. The judge found Mettlen created evidence against Marsal, according to the transcript of the court proceeding obtained by LocalSource.
“An administrative law judge has now confirmed that political opponents of the Board of Education have manufactured false evidence and delivered false testimony,” said Tony Monteiro, president of the board of education.
“This is the natural result of the ceaseless, out-of-control campaign by a partisan political faction which will do anything to add the board of education to the Union County and City of Elizabeth governments they already control with an iron hand,” the school board president added.
Monteiro said this political faction had no trouble spending taxpayer dollars by forcing the board to defend itself against lawsuits that find nothing.
“They have filed bogus ethics complaints time after time, solely so they can charge that members of the board are under investigation. Now they stoop to forging documents. It is just fortunate that the evidence has all been laid out and that they have been caught,” he said.
Although the complaint charged that Dunn referred to himself as the assistant superintendent of schools in some 2011 primary campaign robo-calls, the judge who decided this case found the New Jersey School Ethics Commission “provided no evidence that Marsal acquired telephone numbers from school records,” and none that Dunn referred to himself as the assistant superintendent of schools. In fact, recordings of the calls, according to court testimony, demonstrated that he did not. The court further rejected Mettlen’s allegations that Marsal accessed the board’s computer system to obtain telephone numbers.
“Even if Mettlen’s testimony was credible and believable, which it was not, it would have been impossible for Marsal to acquire the only telephone numbers at issue here,” the judge found. In fact, the court concluded that Mettlen, with administrative rights to all computers, logged in and changed Marsal’s password and then logged back in a minute later as Marsal, all from her home. This was proven in court when Mettlen’s computer IP address was discovered when she logged in on the computer both times.
Mettlen took this information to the prosecutor, which started the ball rolling legally against Dunn and Marsal. Mettlen, a key witness against the board of education, was a former director of education information for the school district. According to the transcript of the hearing, Mettlen admitted under oath that she was the source of information to both investigative reporter Ted Sherman of the Star-Ledger and James Russo of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office.
The judge found both Mettlen’s and Cetta’s testimony “evasive and riddled with inconsistencies and illogical assertations.”
Most telling was the 35 documents provided by Mettlen and considered by the court as alleged evidence against Marsal, were found to be “forged in his name by Mettlen,” the judge said.
This is not the first time Mettlen, who lives in Cranford, had problems involving an employer.
According to testimony in that case, Mettlen had a conflict of interest regarding her role in awarding computer contracts for the University of Tennessee, directing $16,000 to herself through a company called Burnett & Associates. The $16,000 appeared to have been “used for mortgages and credit card payments, and other personal expenditures,” a university audit proved.
The administrative law judge in the Elizabeth case found Dunn and Marsal to be “believable and persuasive and their demeanor to be highly credible.” In terms of Cetta, the judge found she was a committeewoman in her ward and had “Bollwage for Mayor” signs on the front lawn of her home.
Both Mettlen and Cetta were represented by Daniel McCarthy, a major contributor to both the Lesniak and Bollwage campaigns. McCarthy campaign contribution records were admitted into the case as evidence.
Monteiro said he has directed board legal counsel to forward the judge’s findings regarding evidence of Mettlen’s manufacturing evidence to the U.S. Attorney, the New Jersey Attorney General as well as Union County College, where she is employed.
The school board president also said he was deeply gratified by the court exonerating Dunn and Marsal in the strongest terms.
“The Bollwage-Lesniak complainant tried to delay this case just so they could claim the Elizabeth Board of Education was ‘under investigation.’ I know the character of Jerome and Alberto and my heart went out to them during the past two years. They should be gratified by the resounding rejection of these unfounded allegations by the court and the school ethics commission’s enforcement section should be ashamed of itself for pursuing them,” Monteiro said in a statement to LocalSource.
Cetta and Mettlen could not be reached for comment.