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How a Routine Apt. Inspection Exposed a Secret NYPD Spy Office in New Brunswick

The Nation's Leading News Agency Sued the NBPD to Secure Records and a Phone Call That Exposed NYPD Operation in Downtown Apartment Building
NBPD Phone Call Outs NYPD Spy Operation
Undercover New York City police officers apparently took pictures of the buildings that neighbored their luxury apartment. Associated Press

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A recently released audiotape of a June 2009 telephone call to local police reveals the shock and confusion caused when a worker at a New Brunswick apartment complex stumbled upon a secret spy office in one of the units.

The apartment was rented by an undercover New York City police officer under a fake name, where it was used to aid undercover officers from the NYPD working in a far-flung surveillance operation that spied on muslims at Rutgers University and across the Northeast.

But a regularly scheduled five-year inspection of the apartment led a building worker to call local police.  The audio recording of that phone call was at the heart of a lawsuit filed by the Associated Press against New Brunswick's Police Department, who helped keep the NYPD's secret for over two years.

As we reported in June, New Brunswick Police Director Anthony Caputo had originally denied the AP's request claiming that it could jeopardize the security of the building and that the information posed a public safety risk.

The lawsuit was widely reported in the media, but almost a week later, city officials claimed they were unaware of a lawsuit.

"Until I even know what this lawsuit is, if it is legitimate, then there's nothing to comment on... I haven't seen it, I don't know anything about it." said City Council President Robert Recine.

Business Administrator Thomas Laughlin said he had not recieved a notice of claim regarding the lawsuit, but had heard one might be coming.

"I've heard out on the street there was a claim likely by the Associated Press, but I have not seen anything." said Business Administrator Thomas Laughlin.

On Thursday, Mayor James Cahill's spokesman Russell Marchetta confirmed that there was, in fact, a lawsuit and it has been settled.  He told NewBrunswickToday.com that the city decided to settle the lawsuit out of court and turned over the audio tape, as well as emails related to the incident.

The fake name used by the NYPD officer to rent the apartment was blacked out of the documents, but otherwise the Associated Press received everything they had asked for.

According to NBC 4, the newly-released emails reveal that the NYPD worked hard to keep the screwup under wraps.  They succeeded at first, until an August 2011 report by the Associated Press exposed the New Brunswick incident to the public.

Since then, the story has taken on a life of its own, leading to strong rebukes from the muslim community, a strong defense of the NYPD by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and an investigation by the New Jersey Attorney General.

The peculiar contents of the room was what prompted a member of the building staff, Salil Sheth, to make the 911 call that eventually exposed the controversial and potentially unconstitutional spying operation.

Sheth was conducting the building's first-ever five-year inspection.  He said in the 911 call that building staff had notified all of the tenants of the inspection by placing a notice on their door two weeks earlier.

Sheth said he saw the notice was still on the door when he entered.

He was alarmed to find the apartment had very little furniture or clothing, just two beds and one suit.  He also noticed computers, NYPD radios, and "pictures of terrorists."

He also said the unit contained photographs of a nearby building in New Brunswick, an office building at 303 George Street known as the "Matrix building."

The NYPD had failed to notify either New Jersey's state government or New Brunswick's local police that they would be stepping onto their turf.  They even left the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the dark.

After FBI agents joined New Brunswick police at the scene, the NYPD was forced to explain themselves and to awkwardly ask the FBI for their equipment back.

Sheth's discovery also raised questions about the NBPD's knowledge of the NYPD's activities here and elsewhere.  The department had been running a secret "demographics" unit that investigated muslim communities with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Police department spokesman JT Miller has consistently denied the NBPD had any knowledge of the NYPD's activities until Sheth's phone call, but he has refused to say who within the department or city government were made aware of the bizarre incident.

"It came to the light of the detective bureau and they made the notification they needed to make," he said at an April 4 City Council meeting.

City Council members uniformly said they were left in the dark.

Miller indicated that the department notified "higher jurisdictions," but declined to say who specifically was informed.

The building where the NYPD chose to set up shop, 1 Richmond Street, has since changed owners names as the scandal has played out.

Formerly known as the Highlands at Plaza Square, it has since been re-branded as the Plaza Square Apartments, as we reported in December.

The 414-unit complex was sold to Toronto-based Manulife Financial Corp. in December 2010 for $112.5 million.  The original owners were Matrix Development Group, Roseland Contractors, and Applied Companies.  Those three firms, each based in New Jersey, were brought together by a powerful former mayor.

John Lynch Jr., who served as Mayor of New Brunswick from 1979 to 1990, lobbied for the luxury apartment building's construction well after he had left local office.  When Lynch was under investigation for abusing his power as a State Senator, investigators twice subpoenaed records related to its approvals.

In 2006, Lynch plead guilty to fraud and tax evasion related to a development project in South Brunswick. His successor and cousin, Mayor Cahill, testified before a grand jury in the case.

Editor's Note: The author of this article is a candidate for New Brunswick City Council on the November 6, 2012 ballot.