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Months After Getting New City-Owned SUV, Rawls Crashes Again

No One Injured This Time, But Observers Are Dumbfounded That It's His 20th Crash
Robert Rawls
Fire Director Robert Rawls has crashed another city-owned vehicle, this time a 2017 Chevy Tahoe. Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The city's Fire Director has crashed another city-owned sport utility vehicle (SUV), at least the fourth such vehicle he has damaged since 2004.

It marks the 20th crash of the man's driving career, and that's despite  several years spent with his license suspended a total of eighteen times.

It also comes just over three years after his driving priveleges were revoked by his bosses, following one of at least three violent wrecks that led to injuries and legal claims against the city.

City Hall had kept it quiet that Rawls was back behind the wheel, with the blessing of Mayor James Cahill, until New Brunswick Today asked about it at a City Council meeting.

Just ten weeks later, on May 18, Rawls crashed the new 2017 Chevy Tahoe that taxpayers had bought for him, smashing it into a freight truck near the intersection of Routes 18 and 1.

The damage was only cosmetic, and New Brunswick Police Department Officer Dale Gray took a crash report, but issued no summonses to Rawls or the driver of the truck.

"[The other driver] stated, while attempting to change lanes, [Rawls] increased his speed and caused the collision," according to the report.

The other driver also stated that Rawls was using the vehicle's emergency lights, but the police report indicated only "government use" of the is vehicle, and not that it was "responding to [an] emergency."

Just like the May 6, 2014 crash that cost Rawls his driving priveleges, injured three children, and made local television news, it's not clear where Rawls was coming from or going to.

Three years later, on May 25 of this year, Rawls appeared to be hiding from a NBC New York reporter who asked for him at the city's fire headquarters.

Reporter Brian Thompson was told he was "not in" despite the city's damaged, unmarked Chevy Tahoe being parked outside.

Rawls also has a criminal record that would likely prevent him from becoming a firefighter in most New Jersey towns, having pled guilty to assault and shoplifting in a 1989 incident.

His habit of crashing SUV's dates back to at least 2004, when his vehicle seriously injured two Rutgers University employees who were crossing a downtown intersection.

One woman's pelvis was broken and another sufferred full body contusions, according to one of the victims.

But none of that has stopped the city's longtime Mayor from promoting him to Fire Director in 2006, a position where he now earns the largest salary of any city employee.

According to officials, Rawls now makes more than $186,000 each year.  He is one of 97 non-union employees that recieved a 2% raise on July 1, 2016.

But Rawls is only the city's highest-paid employee by virtue of benefits recieved through a union contract, even though he is ostensibly the department's civilian manager, and not a union member of the NJ Fireman's Benevolent Association (FMBA).

"Rawls gets holiday compensation on top of his salary, as per the terms of the FMBA contract," said Jennifer Bradshaw, a spokesperson for Mayor Cahill.  "With that pay, his total compensation is a little over $186,000."

All but one of the other 96 department heads, division heads, supervisors, technical employees, secretarial assistants and attorneys without union representation make significantly less than Rawls.

The only other city employee in the same ballpark when it comes to earnings is Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin III, who now earns $184,435 after his latest raise.

Loughlin could not say how many city vehicles Rawls had crashed since he took office, or how many times the city had been sued by victims of the wrecks.

Both Loughlin and Rawls were among five city workers who were being paid in excess of what was allowed by law last summer, when the City Council voted to retroactively make their over-the-top salaries legal.

After relocating from Bridgewater, Loughlin has been in the powerful BA job since 1993, joining the administration of seven-term Mayor James Cahill halfway through his first term in office.

Like Cahill, Loughlin also served as the Acting head of the city's embattled Water Utility for a time.

In what was originally characterized as a "temporary" appointment, Loughlin spent more than five years as Acting Director, including several when it was found records were falsified by the city's licensed operator.

He eventually got a $15,000 per year pay bump for doing double-duty, but did not have to give up the extra pay when he left the Acting Director position.

Similarly, Rawls has served a dual-role as Fire Director and the city's Emergency Management Coordinator. The city has budgeted for someone to be hired at a six-figure salary for the coordinator position, but no pay cut will be expected for Rawls. 

City Attorney TK Shamy could not say what the outcomes of any of the claims against the city were, only noting that the recent case where Rawls struck the three schoolchildren had not yet been resolved.

Mayor Cahill similarly seemed not to know of prior claims against the city as a result of Rawls' crashes, such as a 2009 legal claim filed against the city by a driver who said Rawls crashed into her vehicle on How Lane.

The incident was first reported by New Brunswick Today in July 2014, only after Rawls had crashed at least one more city-owned SUV.

"The New Brunswick Fire Dept. vehicle started to make a left and collided into me as I was driving straight," read the notice filed almost a decade ago with the Middlesex County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund (MCMJIF), a public entity that provides coverage for the city.

"There was no warning and I could not avoid the left front of the Dodge Durango from hitting the side of my car," wrote the victim.

Rawls also put in a claim of his own with MCMJIF following the February 2009 crash, a worker's compensation claim.

Rawls had been in a crash just ten days earlier, and got into another just over seven months later, according to our sources.

As we reported, Rawls' third crash of 2009 occurred the same day that he gave Mayor Cahill a $500 campaign donation.

Loughlin is now the leader of the MCMJIF Board, and New Brunswick Today asked at their latest meeting about the "controls" the city has over its own fleet of vehicles.

"The most recent accident has been reviewed. It is a concern of ours," admitted Loughlin, before defending City Hall's decisions.

"The suggestion that maybe there's a lack of control, I take offense to that," said Loughlin. "I think we take our driving performance very seriously, and we will continue to monitor the driving performance of all our employees."

Loughlin had previously defended the move to put Rawls behind the wheel at the March 1 City Council meeting.

"It is important to his ability to manage the department to be able to move around freely in a city vehicle," said Loughlin.

But, at the same meeting, no one in the room was able to say just how many times Rawls' crashes had led to the city being sued.

"I'm sure Mr. Rawls' driving record was a consideration," Loughlin had previously said, adding that Rawls' took a defensive driving course, which was apparently offerred by the MCMJIF.

"His ability to operate a city vehicle has been restored," confirmed Loughlin.  "The Mayor made that decision in consultation with Robert."

In an exclusive interview two weeks before the latest crash, Mayor Cahill said that Rawls' driving record was "fine."

"[Driving] is an important function of the job," said Cahill.  "It facilitates his ability to do his job as best he can."

"We've checked with the [Motor Vehicle Commission," the Mayor continued.  "We continue to monitor it, so everything's fine with respect to that."

"We've also had him go for driver training," as "an ultra-protection," said Cahill.

The city government first took away Rawls' driving priveleges after the 2014 crash that seriously injured three children who were on their way home from school, and crossing the street in a well-marked crosswalk.

Rawls pled guilty to careless driving later that summer and paid a fine of $206, but he still wasn't allowed to drive on the job.

After declining to release it multiple times, and being sued by this reporter over their failure to comply with the NJ Open Public Records Act (OPRA), the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office finally released its 17-page report on Rawls' 2014 crash.

The report showed that Rawls passed a blood test, which showed no traces of drugs or alcohol in his system.

That crash drew attention from New York City television stations, including NBC, the channel that eventually revealed Rawls had such a poor driving record.

Rawls' 2014 crash was once of at least a dozen such wrecks involving city vehicles that year, including an NBPD "supervisor" car that was badly damaged in a crash on September 8.

Just over a month later, on October 17, three police vehicles and several civilian cars were damaged in a messy series of crashes near the city's busiest intersection.

For his part, Mayor Cahill stated that lawsuits are "not uncommon" against city officials, and he apparently doesn't put too much stock in them.

"It's not uncommon for city officials to get sued.  So, if everytime somebody got sued, we told somebody that they can't drive, or they can't do this anymore, we'd probably stop government," said Cahill.

"Right now, and for the past number of years, he's got a spotless driving record," Cahill claimed.  "He's gone for defensive driving and driver improvement type of stuff, so at this point it's beneficial to the city that he drive, so that's the decision I made."

The cost of Rawls' crashes is unknown, but more often than not, that cost has likely been spread among more than 20 government entities throughout New Jersey by way of the MCMJIF.

New Brunswick's own Thomas Loughlin took over the top spot on the agency's board at the May 31 meeting where he again defended the decision to put Rawls behind the wheel because he took the MCMJIF course, and "provided a drivers' abstract that declared his driving status to be in good standing."

Of course, "good standing" only means that the license is not suspended.

Crashes were not the only problems with the city's fleet during the volatile time period that began in late 2013.  At least one city vehicle got tied up in a criminal investigation less than six months before Rawls' high-profile crash.

The city's Chief Housing Inspector was arrested by State Police in December 2013 after being pulled over in his city-owned truck.

According to authorities, the truck contained a "distribution quantity" of cocaine.

Mahony eventually pleaded guilty to possessing less than a half an ounce of the drug, and resigned the position where he had been working directly under Rawls.

After the crash, the city hired another person to insulate Rawls from the troubled inspections division, a "hot potato" in City Hall that was once removed from Loughlin's Adminstration Department to Rawls' Fire Department.

Officials in the Planning Department are quick to point out they only share office space with the Inspections Division, which is now run by Alex Adkins.

Mahony had enjoyed a special privelege that only certain city workers have, including Rawls and Loughlin.

It was in this context that New Brunswick Today started asking about what it took to get a "take-home" city vehicle, and whether the city checked the driving records of its employees who drive on the job.

After admitting to not examining records for the 20+ other employees in possession of a so-called "take-home" city vehicle, New Brunswick's government eventually agreed to start checking them.

At least two of those employees, both with the city's troubled Water Utility, had to give up their take-home vehicles after the were criminally charged with official misconduct in a bribery scheme and suspended from work in December.

Longtime utility employees Joseph DeBonis and Carlos Ortiz both have multiple relatives working for the city or its related government agencies.

And both were also on the exclusive list of city workers who had acess to their own city car around-the-clock.

Both also enjoyed parking priveleges behind City Hall, only raising more questions about how and why these two low-salaried workers appeared to enjoy special treatment.

When pressed on who gets take-home vehicle priveleges, and why, during a Council meeting during the summer of 2014, Loughlin took issue our line of questioning.

"Generally, [they are] offerred to department heads when they have to respond to incidents in off-hours," Loughlin said on August 6, 2014, but it quickly became clear there was not a hard or fast policy on which employees ought to get the take-home vehicles.

What was clear was there was no established practice of checking someone's driving record before putting them behind the wheel.

As of 2014, two of three police captains had the use of take-home vehicles, as did one of nine Fire Lieutenants, and at least one dozen other city employees, including a handful of Cahill's cabinet.

Loughlin, Rawls, Police Director Anthony Caputo, and Social Services Director David Blevins enjoy the privelege, as does Public Works Director Steven Zarecki, who is Loughlin's brother-in-law.

New Brunswick Today pressed Loughlin on whether any of the department heads that got take-home vehicles were related, either "by blood or by marriage."

"Yes, Mr. Zarecki is my brother-in-law.  He married my sister, and I chose to give him a car for that," a sarcastic Loughlin joked, rejecting the premise of this reporter's question.

Later that year, newly-hired Water Director Alexei Walus became the first New Brunswick employee to have his driving record checked that summer, in accordance with a new policy that City Hall claims was in place since the same month that Rawls' SUV struck the three children.

"It's not really a change in policy, but the practice was established in May 2014 before Mr. Walus came on board," said Bradshaw.  "That decision was made by the Administration department."

"The abstracts of the 23 other City employees have not been checked, as in order to have access to them, the employees themselves must furnish them. It's not an unreasonable idea, but it's not happened as of yet," said Bradshaw.  That was back in January 2015.