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Focus on School Violence Thrusts Ex-NBPD Director Into Spotlight

School Safety, Politics, and Pension Issue Collide After Video of Attack on Student
NBPD at NBHS
The NBPD substation in the high school is a reminder of Mangarella and the connection between NBPS and NBPD. Molly O'Brien

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Under pressure from community advocates and the New Brunswick Today newspaper, school officials released attendance records to show the days and hours that one of its top employees worked.

Peter Mangarella, the Director of School Security, was apparently away on vacation as a major controversy unfolded in his shop, after a 15-year-old was attacked by a fellow student at New Brunswick High School (NBHS).

Mangarella said in a phone interview that he left for a previously-planned out-of-state trip to Florida the morning after 15-year-old Oscar Aparicio was violently attacked.

After returning from vacation, the former New Brunswick Police Department (NBPD) Director commented publicly on the attack for the first time in the interview.

"What happened is absolutely horrible," Mangarella said of the attack on the 15-year-old.  "Anybody who's seen the tapes would say it was absolutely horrible.  The kid was blindsided from behind, never seen this coming."

"This wasn't a fight.  This was a violent assault," said Mangarella, who left work at 3:31pm that day, according to the timecard records, about a half-hour later than usual.  The assault took place at approximately noon.

Mangarella said it was the fourth straight year he used vacation time to travel to Winter Haven, Florida, to watch his son play college baseball.

"I was leaving the next morning. Everybody knew I was leaving the next morning," Mangarella said. "But when I left, everything that had to be done was done. In fact I'm in Florida doing my administrative things from my laptop, came back the following Saturday, and I came back to work that Monday."

But while Mangarella was on vacation, the district apparently fired a security guard as the result of a "lapse in judgement" related to the student-on-student beating, which went on for at least twenty seconds before another guard intervened.

The change in course raised questions about Mangarella's role in the notoriously violent school system at the same time protesters and TV stations were descending on the city's high school, and focusing their questions on the Board of Education (BOE) and first-year Superintendent Aubrey Johnson, who initially said that all of the district's protocols were followed.

With an election for three seats on the BOE coming up on April 19, school safety is sure to be on the minds of many voters in the Hub City.

Mangarella said that "law enforcement" was swiftly involved in the assault investigation, and that the district's Emergency Planning Coordinator Gerald Cappela was left in charge of school security in his absence.

"It's a job and you gotta be there for certain things or have people there in your absence," Mangarella said. "Every base is covered when I'm on vacation."

As for the fired security guard, Mangarella said he could not address the issue publicly.

"I wish I could talk to you about that but right now I can't because it's a personnel issue."

SECURITY DIRECTOR'S SALARY SET TO INCREASE IN NEW SCHOOL BUDGET 

Mangarella's original contract said he would be paid $90,000 per school year, an amount that has since crept up to $95,743, and is set to climb to $98,137 under the 2016-2017 budget.

"Every year you get whatever increment [raise] that they gave to administration," said Mangarella, who spent the bulk of his career as a city cop before serving as NBPD Director for fifteen months.

For Mangarella, the BOE salary comes on top of a $116,405 annual pension for his policework.

During the phone interview, which took place during the district's Spring Break, Mangarella defended his handling of the violent incident, and his use of vacation days, which he said he sometimes has difficulty using up. 

Mangarella's first and only contract with the district says, "The school calendar adopted by the Board of Education shall control the working days for each administrator."

But it appears the job also comes with good benefits, including more than a month's worth of vacation time.

"I think I get 25 vacation [days] because that's what all directors get," Margarella said. "Sick days, I think it's 12, and 3 personal."

Mangarella said the days were "use 'em or lose," and that they can only be carried over for one year.

"Every July 1, I get another 25 days," Mangarella said. "We have to burn 'em off."

He added that the high school "stays open," virtually year-round, and "the other [schools] are open all the way until the first week of August."

ACCUSATION OF NO-SHOW JOB DISPROVED BY ATTENDANCE RECORDS

Community leader David Harris posted on a popular online forum, after reading a March 17 NBToday article, saying it "looks like the job of Head of Security for the NBBOE is a political plum NO SHOW job."

"One qualifies for a job like this when one has done a lot of favors for political big wigs," Harris continued. "The other equally important fact that places one at the front of the line for a ripe plum job is you have to know where the bodies are buried and be unwilling to talk to authorities."

"I think I got hung out to dry a little," Mangarella said of the NBT article, which focused on his own absence from the first board meeting after the brutal attack, a gathering that quickly turned into a discussion on violence in the schools.

Mangarella also pushed back against accusations that he had a "no-show" job.

"It is the furthest thing from a no-show job," countered Mangarella.

"You know I spent my whole career coming to work sick, not taking sick time, and now I'm being accused of a no show job?" asked Mangarella, referring to Harris' accusation.  "Call me anything you want, but don't call me that. It's just not fair for someone to shoot from the hip."

"How could you ever say that?" Mangarella continued.  "My father was a construction worker--I come from a family of people who work with their hands... Unless you have a bone sticking out of your leg, then you go to work."

At least one district official also jumped to Mangarella's defense.

"Allow me to start off by saying that the New Brunswick District does not have any 'no show' jobs," said BOE attorney George Hendricks, a former City Councilman who is paid handsomely to represent the school system.

"Mr. Mangarella holds a [12-month] full-time position, he punches in every day and has a designated office in the Board complex. He supervises approximately sixty [employees]. The Board advises that Mr. Mangarella is present every day except during contractually provided for vacation or sick time."

For his part, Mangarella had no objection to the release of his "ADP TimeSaver sign in records," which ultimately showed he has used 21 of his 25 vacation days for the 2015-2016 school year, as well as one personal day, and one-half of a sick day.

Since January 1, the latest Mangarella showed up to work on a school day was 6:54am, according to the computerized timecard records.

During the same time period, there were only two days when he clocked out earlier that 2:57pm on a school day: his partial sick day, when he clocked out at 11:05am, and on a Friday when he clocked out at 1:56pm.

Mangarella also came into work twice during the weekend of February 20-21, putting in an additional eighteen hours, according to the records.

District officials had initially declined to produce the records under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) but after Mangarella signed a waiver allowing the district to release the records, and this newspaper made our case under the common law right of access, the records were finally released on April 6.

CITY COUNCIL CONFRONTED WITH SHOOTING IN MANGARELLA'S PAST

At their April 6 meeting, the City Council was confronted by activist Tormel Pittman with allegations that Mangarella shot an unarmed teenager more than two decades ago in the Somerset section of Franklin Township.

"That's probably part of the issue," said Pittman, referring to the problem of violence in city schools. "If you're not aware that Pete Mangarella shot a young teenager in his back unarmed in Franklin, Somerset."

Mangarella admits he accidentally shot a suspect while trying to affect an arrest during his time on the "Border Anti-Drug Team" (BADT), a joint task force between law enforcement in Franklin and New Brunswick, and their respective counties.

The incident happened just blocks away from where Franklin Township Police recently shot and killed 27-year-old Diahlo Grant.

"He shot a teenager in 1990 on the ground, and now he's head of security at New Brunswick High School," Pittman told the Council.

"Oh my God," utterred one member of the audience after that statement.

"Wouldn't you think that the one law enforcement officer that shot a teenager that was on the ground, that's the guy that the City of New Brunswick picked to be the head of security for New Brunswick High School?  What is that saying about the City of New Brunswick? " asked Pittman.

"Of course there's going to be a lack of participation and a lack of empathy for the people in the school," the activist concluded.  "The leader of security, the person in charge of security, is shooting teenagers." 

"I know Mr. Mangarella being in an altercation and having that years ago," responded City Council President Kevin Egan, then asking, "Was he convicted of anything? Was he found guilty of anything?"

"Not to my knowledge," responded City Attorney TK Shamy.

"There's more to the case than him just shooting somebody," said Egan.

Mangarella says the incident was investigated by Somerset County authorities, who determined he "accidentally discharged" his weapon, injuring the young man's shoulder.

The former Police Director said it all started when he and another officer were working backup on "an undercover buy" at the Half-time Pub on Hamilton Street.

One police officer was in the car with two suspects, and then, after Mangarella and his partner tried to stop the car, the young man ran down Kossuth Street.

"As I'm chasing [the suspect] to catch him, I have my gun out," said Mangarella, who said he recalls the incident well.

After Mangarella caught up with the suspect, he grabbed his shirt, and says that in doing he also squeezed a "squeeze cocker" on his gun.

"I grab him from behind.  I have my [gun] in my right hand.  The gun is flat up against his back... as I'm squeezing his shirt to get a grip on him, what else do you think I am squeezing?"

Then, Mangarella says the two men tumbled to the ground, and the momentum of their impact against the ground caused him to discharge the weapon.

"As we hit the ground, the shot goes off," Mangarella continued.

"[The bullet] goes in and out in his shoulder," said Mangarella, emphasizing it was "just a flesh wound" and "as minor as a gunshot wound can be."

"It didn't even hit any bone."

Mangarella says he saw the round he fired land on the ground, and, at first, thought that no one had been hit.  But the two soon learned that the suspect had sufferred a gunshot wound to the shoulder.

"The funny thing about it is, of course, Somerset County comes in to do the investigation and he told 'em that night, 'Well, I know it was an accident.'"

"I give him a lot of credit, he gave a statement that night," said Mangarella, who added that scrapemarks from the weapon on the suspect's back corroborated his story.

Mangarella says he doesn't recall being sued by the man, who later pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute cocaine.

"He ended up pleading out in Superior... he got like 3 years for possession with intent.  Even after that I always got along with him."

STUDENT SAFETY ISSUE LEADS TO QUESTIONS ABOUT POLITICAL INFLUENCE 

Mangarella was hired during the "old days," before the city's school board was elected by voters.

Previously, City Hall politics played a bigger role in the schools, with each BOE member directly appointed by Mayor James Cahill.

The video of the violent assault in the hallways of NBHS was the spark that ignited several powerful protests and generated coverage on local TV stations in both English and Spanish.

The ensuing spotlight also prompted NBT to ask questions about Mangarella and force the powers that be to clarify his role.

BOE President Patricia Sadowski and Superintendent Johnson promised a full investigation into the violent incident, and re-training for all security guards at the March 15 meeting.

But, as these events unfolded, Mangarella was conspicuously missing from the discusion, and other district officials have since proven to be less than forthcoming and out of step with typical government standards of transparency.

For example, Sadowski and Johnson refused to say how many people applied for the School Security Director position and how many were interviewed for it back in 2012.

The district's Business Administrator Richard Jannarone also denied our OPRA request for Mangarella's resume and the resume of all other candidates.

Making matters worse, multiple security guards wrongly told residents and this reporter that video recording or photography was not allowed at the March 15 Board of Education meeting.  One of them got physical and threatened to eject this reporter from the meeting.

Officials provided Mangarella's job description on April 12, two weeks after New Brunswick Today requested it.  Mangarella's job title does not appear on the district's organization chart.

Instead, "Security" falls under "Director of Support Services" on the current organization chart.  The district's webpage labeled "Support Services > Security," currently consists of few words:

"SECURITY
coming soon..."

A separate page called "SCHOOL SECURITY," lists only two sentences about the mission of the district's security staff:

The School Security Mission for the New Brunswick Public Schools (NBPS) is to maintain a safe and secure environment for students, faculty, staff and the NBPS community. The achievement of this goal is pursued through our school security officers patrolling school facilities and grounds to prevent disruptive or illegal actions, access to restricted areas, theft and vandalism.

"When is this guy [Superintendent Aubrey] Johnson going to realize Mangarella is just a spy for the city and he needs to appoint his own administrators?" asked one inside source.

In 2012, Mangarella became the third of Mayor Cahill's four police directors to join him in an exclusive club of "double-dippers," public employees who collect a public salary and a public pension at the same time.

As we reported, the state's pension system is in a financial crisis, partly due to double-dippers like Cahill, Mangarella, Anthony Caputo, Joseph Catanese, and Anthony Barber.

Caputo, the current NBPD Director, preceeded Mangarella, but returned to power in a move that, combined with the Board of Education's decision to hire Mangarella, allowed both men to collect significant salaries on top of six-figure pensions before their 50th birthdays.

After Cahill secured a sixth term as Mayor, he executed the unexpected switcheroo where Mangarella made way for Caputo to return to the highest law enforcement job in the city, and for Mangarella to be rewarded with the BOE position two months later.

MANGARELLA AND CAPUTO EACH GET PENSION PLUS BIG PAYOUT

As we reported, Caputo was paid $376,234 for his unused sick and vacation time as a cop, a benefit that only city cops who started the job before 1990 were allowed to accumulate, or "roll over," from year to year.

The practice has led to many public employees getting big pay days upon retirement, sometimes referred to as "boat checks" because they are sometimes large enough to purchase a boat.

City officials confirmed taxpayers are almost done paying $258,240 to Mangarella for his unused sick or vacation time from his time as a cop, where he rose through the ranks to become the Director of the NBPD before retiring just over a year later.

The controversial move allowed both Mangarella and Caputo to become "double-dippers."

Mangarella was allowed to return to work so quickly because the school security job is in a different pension system than the one for police and firefighters.  Caputo, meanwhile, was able to return to the same exact position he "retired" from because he had been out of office for at least six months.

At the time of his initial "retirement," Mangarella told a reporter that "he [planned] to look for opportunities in the private sector."

Ironically, Mangarella said two of the factors that contributed to his decision to "retire" early were "recent state proposals requiring higher pension contributions by public employees... as well as potential retirement cutbacks."

“It’s a hard thing to know that after all these years you’ve been working [drastic pension changes are possible],” he told journalist Gail Ferguson Jones. “It weighs on you.”

MANY WERE OUTRAGED OVER POLICE DIRECTOR SWITCHEROO

Many observers were outraged that Caputo, who had recently been approved for his "boat check," which was divided into three separate payments as part of his "retirement," would return to the six-figure job as NBPD Director.

After Cahill announced the re-hiring of Caputo, the state's largest newspaper questioned the wisdom of the choice, which allowed the ex-Director to collect a pension and salary for the same exact position.

"New Brunswick Police Director rakes it in," was the title of the scathing editorial in the Newark Star-Ledger, which called it a "win-win" for Caputo but not for taxpayers.

The newspaper concluded:

The law is hazy. Sometimes it’s legal to reclaim a public job, or another one, while collecting a pension. The state rules case by case.

Taxpayers, though, resent well-connected people who use public jobs as their ATM — and mayors who hire and rehire cronies.

Police and fire administrators have a sweetheart loophole. While collecting a pension, they can be rehired after six months.

The law should be simple: If you’re collecting a public pension, you can’t collect a salary for a similar public job. At the very least, salary and pension combined shouldn’t exceed the market value of the job.

That way, returning retirees will be driven more by public service than the almighty dollar.

Still, many police in the department were happy to have Caputo back in charge, and one law enforcement source told us that it had been the plan all along.

"This is legal but immoral gluttony that hurts public workers and taxpayers," said Patricia Bombelyn, an attorney who challenged Cahill in a 2010 election.

"It blocks advancement by lower level public employees, helps maintain high unemployment, fuels cynicism about the virtues of public employees and lends credence to negative stereotypes about New Jersey," Bombelyn told journalist Joe Malinconico in his July 2012 article about Mangarella's new gig.

Bombelyn lost the Mayor election in June 2010, but her campaign revealed evidence of voter fraud involving Kevin Jones, an employee in the Mayor's Office who still works at City Hall and serves on the New Brunswick Housing Authority (NBHA) board. 

Cahill faced no opposition in both the primary or general elections in 2014, coasting to an unprecedented seventh term in office.