NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Fire Director Robert Rawls ascended through the ranks of the New Brunswick Fire Department to become its leader in 2006, despite a serious red flag that would have kept most people out of higher office.
Six days before Christmas in 1989, while Rawls was a firefighter, he was involved in an incident and later convicted of shoplifting and two counts of simple assault.
Sources tell New Brunswick Today that the incident took place at the city's Foodtown supermarket, and that Rawls bit a security guard who tried to stop him. Rawls allegedly ran away without paying for imitation crab legs and Robitussin.
Asked directly if Rawls bit a security guard while trying to steal from the Foodtown, Mayor Jim Cahill's spokesperson did not deny it.
"I can't comment on that one way or another, I have no knowledge of it," said spokesperson Jennifer Bradshaw.
In 1990, while Mayor Cahill was running for office for the first time, Rawls pleaded guilty to each charge, paying $485 in fines. He kept his job as a firefighter.
Rawls did not respond to an email requesting comment on the convictions.
When asked this Wednesday whether the incident was indeed part of Rawls' past, the Mayor responded, "I don't know. Is it?"
Cahill is currently running unopposed for an unprecedented seventh term as the city's chief executive.
Cahill's eight-member cabinet consists of Rawls, the only person of color, and seven white men.
New Brunswick Today returned to City Hall with court documents showing that Rawls was, in fact convicted of three charges in 1990.
Cahill, a part-time employee who is already collecting a sizable pension, was not available, but his spokesperson gave no comment and questioned whether this reporter could be trusted.
"I don't have a comment for you right now on this," said Bradshaw before getting personal.
"Honestly, Charlie, most of the stuff I've been giving you, it seems it's not enough, or it's not the answer that you want, and you've been turning it around on me in articles anyway," Bradshaw said.
"I really don't have a problem with giving [New Brunswick Today] factual information, but I feel like no matter what I tell you about this, it's not going to come out properly in the article, frankly. And I have a problem with that."
City Council President Rebecca Escobar also offerred no comment when approached after this week's Council meeting.
"I have no knowledge of what you are talking about," said Escobar, "so I'm not going to make a comment on that." Escobar was also shown the court documents that indicate the convictions.
Two days later, City Hall finally issued a statement, bizarrely defending Rawls without directly acknowledging that he was convicted of the crimes we asked about.
"What Robert Rawls may or may not have done some 25 years ago is not of real importance today," read the statement from the Mayor's Office.
City Hall did not respond to a follow-up question asking if Mayor Cahill was aware of Rawls' criminal record when he promoted him to Fire Director in 2006.
The statement also ignored our questions about a 2005 incident where Rawls was charged with harassment by a fellow firefighter, Frank Toia. Those charges were transferred to South River's municipal court where they were dismissed.
"[Rawls] has been and continues to be a valued member of the City of New Brunswick’s administration team," concludes the Mayor's press statement on the criminal record.
In fact, Rawls is paid the second-most of all city employees, earning $155,000 salary and, until recently, enjoying free use of a city-owned sport utility vehicle.
"The City of New Brunswick is in the business of building up, not tearing down, and Director Rawls has proven himself to be a great leader to the men and women of the outstanding New Brunswick Fire Department, as well as to the greater New Brunswick community, as evident by his exhaustive resume of community involvement, volunteering and philanthropy," said the Cahill statement.
The statement does not elaborate on Rawls' specific community involvement, volunteering, or philanthropy.
Rawls had led protests in 2004, as part of a group of minority firefighters known as the Vulcan Pioneers. They were objecting to percieved racism in the decisions to promote certain individuals above others in the Department.
Two years later, Rawls was promoted to the top job, a position he has now held for almost eight years.
This past year has not been good for Rawls, however.
In December, the city's Chief Housing Inspector, who Rawls directly supervised, was arrested for driving a city vehicle containing a large quantity of cocaine. He has not been fired but remains suspended without pay.
On May 6, Rawls' city-owned Chevy Tahoe struck three children in a crosswalk, sparking massive protests that brought hundreds of residents to a City Council meeting, including many in the city's growing Latino community.
Two weeks later, the scene was quite different as an orchestrated campaign to support Rawls drew upwards of 30 people to the City Council meeting, each sporting pins that said "#IStandwithRawls"
Only one member of the Rawls supporters group spoke at the City Council meeting, Keith Jones II, a city resident who's active in politics and government.
Jones praised Rawls for his "28 years of excellent service in the City of New Brunswick," and numerous youth-oriented activities that Rawls is involved with.
"He's also a father, he's also a friend of mine," said Jones, who criticized both protesters and journalists for what he called a "witchhunt."
"We are here to support and stand with Director Rawls and let the public know… that we won't stand and allow for this man's character to be assassinated for what was clearly an unfortunate accident."
Two days later, however, NBC New York, broke the story that the crash was Rawls' 19th such incident, and that his license had been suspended 18 times in 38 years of driving.
Asked for a comment about Rawls' criminal record, Jones told New Brunswick Today, "No, I don't have a reaction."
Because there was serious bodily injury to at least one of the children, the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office investigated but cleared Rawls of criminal charges.
Before the county could complete their investigation, New Brunswick police issued two traffic tickets to Rawls. He is scheduled to appear in South Brunswick Municipal Court on August 19 at 1:30pm.
Rawls had been in at least two crashes involving city vehicles that resulted in legal claims being filed against the city, but officials kept Rawls behind the wheel of a large SUV until the May 6 crash.
Preliminary records indicate that Rawls did not use his emergency radio or cell phone to call in the crash to authorities, contrary to the claims of the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.