NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—As the county's Sheriff seeks re-election to a third term, and multiple scandals descend upon on her administration, Republican voters will have a choice in the primary election to determine who will run againt her.
As Democrat incumbent Mildred Scott runs unopposed in the June 7 primary election, two Republicans will face off for the chance to represent their party, and take her on in the general election.
The ultimate winner will lead the Middlesex County Sheriff's Office (MCSO), an agency with more than 200 employees that is responsible for prisoner transportation and courthouse security.
The primary is open to Republicans and unaffiliated voters in the county. Democrats have only one candidate on their ballot: Sheriff Scott.
Both men seeking for the GOP nomination are lifelong Republicans who are running for public office for the first time, and both have experience serving in the military, and within the law enforcement agency they hope to run.
Both were also willing to speak to New Brunswick Today.
Scott's scandals, and those of her predecessor Joseph Spicuzzo, still loom large over the department and the upcoming election, more than five years after Spicuzzo was first charged with selling police jobs.
One of the men Spicuzzo hired is seeking the Republican nomination to run against Scott, but first he faces a challenge from a current Sherriff's Officer.
"Peter" Pedro Pisar, a retired Sheriff's investigator who grew up in South Plainfield and started his law enforccement career as a MCSO dispatcher, will appear on the Republican ballot againt David Pawski, a current Sheriff's Officer.
Pisar hails from South Amboy, while Pawski, an Old Bridge native, lives in neighboring Sayreville. The winner will face Scott, a Piscataway resident who grew up in Perth Amboy and served 27 years in Spicuzzo's Sheriff's Department.
Scott's tenure has been marred by accusations of favoritism and retaliation, in many cases leveled by officers who testified against Spicuzzo and were later dismissed for paying the former Sheriff bribes.
More recently, Undersheriff Kevin Harris and Chief Warrant Officer Candice Burgess, two of Scott's top supporters within the department, have come under scrutiny in the pages of New Brunswick Today.
Harris allegedly called off the execution of an arrest warrant for someone at his Piscataway home earlier this year.
He and Scott had no comment on the rumors, and neither have attended the county government's public meetings since.
For her part, Burgess just recently finished serving a six-day unpaid suspension after an incident where she allegedly injured another officer by throwing something–perhaps a pen–at them.
"If that was me, sitting in that chair, she'd be gone," said Pisar, referring to each of the scandals as "black spots on the badge."
Pawski also said the allegation were serious, but did not automatically assume they were true like his opponent.
"If it gets investigated and that if it comes out that it's true what's been written, it's kind of is a shame for the department," said Pawski. "Every officer working there, it gives them a bad name."
"My thing is I run a tight budget, I'm a cost saver," Pisar told New Brunswick Today, saying that if elected, he would "improve the morale in the department" and correct the negative effects of Scott's "mis-micromanagement" by putting "the people in the right spots."
"I'm not in it for the money. im here to make the community safer and better," Pisar said, pledging to be a man of the people while in office.
"I will not be sitting behind the desk with a shirt and a tie."
Pisar is fluent in four different languages (Spanish, Russian, Ukranian and Polish) and has served as a licensed interpreter for the Army's 260th Miliary Police Division.
The Middlesex County Republican Party provided a biography of Pisar, calling him a "proven leader who has imparted memorable guidance for those he has managed."
Pisar cited several private businesses he worked at including Sleep Doctor and the Knickerbocker Toy Company.
"I saved a lot of money in companies," said Pisar, saying he managed a $1.2 million budget at that company that did a lot of business in Haiti.
He earned the support of the Republican establishment in a close vote at the party's convention in March, besting Pawski 102-84.
But rather than stand down after losing the "party line," Pawski chose to challenge Pisar in the primary election, and proceeded to secure the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #59, one of two unions representing the rank-and-file officers in the department.
When first contacted by NBToday, Pisar dismissed Pawski's candidacy, stating that Pawski would not be appearing on the Republican ballot.
"We had the convention and I was nominated by the Republican committee and he didn't win."
Pawski, a seven-year veteran of the department, told NBT that he switched from the Police Benevolence Association to the FOP in 2015, because it was a better fit for him.
Under his name on the ballot is the phrase "Time for Transformation."
"I believe that this is a time for transformation and unification," Pawski said in a statement. "I am a natural leader; one that believes in accountability; being accountable for my mistakes and understanding that when one person fails, we all fail."
Pawski touts his experience in the Sheriff's Department as well as the Army National Guard, where he completed "two overseas tours" and responded to "the tragedy when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans."
"During this time I was fortunate enough to receive many commendations for my work: the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Achievement Medal, the Joint Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, among many others," wrote Pawski in a statement.
Pawski, who makes a $80,160 salary as a Sheriff's officer, also faced retaliation from his boss, Sheriff Scott, according to multiple sources, though he declined to comment on the situation.
Inside sources told NBT that Pawski had been taken off of his usual assignment–making runs to the bank to deposit money collected at the county's two courthouses–the day after he submitted his petition to run in the primary election.
"Supposedly, when Scott found out Pawski was running she took him off an assignment," said one source. "Most likely retaliation."
Now, like most Middlesex County Sheriff's Officers, Pawski is relegated to courthouse security, one of the primary funcions of the department.
Both men spoke of a desire to foster a stronger relationship between local police departments and the county Sheriff's Department.
"One of the big things that needs to change is the the Sheriff's Department needs to help out with the local police more," said Pawski.
"I would start by repairing the broken relationships between the Sheriffs Office and the local municipalities, instituting quarterly meetings for all law enforcement to discuss the issues plaguing their individual towns, developing collaborative task forces and pooling resources to better protect the public and increase efficiency," said Pawski.
"I am up to the challenge of bringing unity back to the department and local municipalities while recognizing all officers as important cogs in the wheel of Justice," reads Pawski's statement.
Pisar says he wants to take that idea even further, promising to have Sheriff's Officer patrolling throughout the county around-the-clock, something that the department has not done in a long time.
In an interview with New Brunswick Today, he also made bold promises to investigate and arrest the county's biggest drug dealers, and effectively stop the illegal drug trade in Middlesex County, while simultaneously promising to open a facility where people could stay for 30 to 60 days and receive help addicted people get off drugs.
"You want to clean them up, have a building set up, maybe by the correction facility where we can keep 'em there and get them unhooked from the drug," Pisar said.
"I can put a dent in [the heroin and prescription drug epidemic]. I know I can," said Pisar. "From each department, you take an… officer, create special team in conjunction with the prosecutor's office and do raids, do undercover work, find out where the dealers are."
"It can be done, people talk."
"If you keep a tight rein on a community and a town, ain't to many people gonna be moving around," Pisar said, "because what happens is they don't want to go to jail."
But pressed on how he would pay all of his new programs, Pisar said he would need "an honest Freeholder" to help him comb through the budget.
One cost-cutting measure he said he would support would be selling off the department's expensive new prisoner transportation bus.
He also promised to organize regular gun buybacks and start hosting educational programs to teach parents about drugs, things he said used to happen reguarly when Spicuzzo was in charge of the department
"The problem starts at home with the parents. The parents have to be taught what drugs are all about," said Pisar. "After the Spicuzzo era went, it just dropped the ball."
Spicuzzo, who served ten terms as Sheriff, was jailed in 2012 after he pleaded guilty to charging bribes in exchange for investigator jobs. He was released in 2015.
Pisar denied paying a bribe for his investigator job, saying that, before he was hired in 1990, he proved himself as a dispatcher, a position he earned by passing a civil service test.
"I never had a problem with Spicuzzo," said Pisar. "He took care of the men, but as far as what happened with that I was shocked embarrased with what he did."
"That was uncalled for, for a man with his intelligence and respect in the county," said Pisar. "It's a shame he went down that way, it's a shame."
Six years after becoming an investigator, Pisar graduated from the Middlesex County Police Academy in 1996, according to a report in the Newark Star-Ledger.
Either way, observers agree it will be an uphill battle for the winner of the Republican primary,
For nearly two decades, all of the countywide elected offices have been held by Democrats, despite huge scandals and criminal investigations.
One issue that the Republican candidates differ on is who they are supporting at the top of the ticket in the June 7 election.
Pisar gave a full-fledged endorsement of Donald Trump for President, and compared Sheriff Scott to Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
"Trump's my man. People don't understand Trump… because the news media is blasting him too much," said Pisar, who appears under the controversial real estate developer's name on the ballot. "I think that Trump would do a hell of a job. He's somebody who's not in the loop."
A characteristic Pisar seems to have in common with Trump is his insensitive views towards people of color: Pisar told us that he believes Sikhs "like to hide knives in their [turbans]," citing it as a reason courthouse security is challenging work.
Pawski, on the other hand, was not sure who he was voting for when we spoke to him in the final week before the contest.
"I don't know if I fully decided who I'm going to vote for," said Pawski, who was relegated to the ballot line under Ohio Governor John Kasich. Texas Senator Ted Cruz will also appear on the ballot as a Presidential candidate, though he and Kasich have officially dropped out of the race.
For his part, Pawski says he is happy with the elected leadership in his town, and controversial Republican Mayor Kennedy O'Brien, who was recently appointed by Governor Chris Christie to a job with the state's agency that uses prisoner labor to create and sell products to local governments.
"Everyone in town seems to love him," said Pawski, remarking that it was impressive for O'Brien to win in a town with more Democrats than Republicans. "He's very smart and he honestly cares about the town."
Pisar, who lives in neighboring South Amboy, doesn't care for the Democratic leadership there, or the all-Democrat Freeholder board that runs the coutnry government.
"The democratic machine in this county has let the public down," saying the present leaders were guilty of "dereliction of duty" and "abuse of power."
"I think the mayor is not doing his job in town," Pisar said of his town's Mayor Fred Henry.
Pisar claims to be the more experienced candidate, citing his experience in the private sector as well as on the public payroll.
"[Pawski] doesn't have the experience as I do as a dispatcher and an investigator. I have far more experience than he does."
Asked what he did during his time as an investigator, Pisar said, "We did a lot of drug busts, non-support warrants, probation warrants."
He also spoke of his experiences extraditing accused criminals who were being held in different states during his time as an investigator.
But Pisar's critics have strong words to say against him, calling him a "pathological liar," and a "crony" of the prior Sheriff, even leveling allegations that he did not leave the investigator job on his own terms.
"Don't believe anything he says," said one inside source. "[Pisar] has always been a liar. He was in it with Spicuzzo."
One insider told NBToday that Pisar was forced to retire because he "refused to supply medical documents" to back up his disability claims.
According to state pension records, Pisar earns an annual $33,530.76 "ordinary disability" pension, but it shows up under a slightly-different name: Pedro Pysar.
"Peter's legal last name is PISAR," clarified Republican spokesperson Tony Ciavolella. "The reason for the 'PYSAR' is because when he was in the military, the Army misspelled his last name."
The records show he was denied an "accidental disability" pension by the Police and Firemen's Retirement System Board in August 2012, but instead was granted an "ordinary disability" pension based on four different alleged "accidents" between 1999 and 2009.
Pisar appealed the decision and the pension board approved for the matter to be referred to the Office of Administrative Law. It's not clear what the outcome was.
For his part, Pisar focused his criticism on his Democratic opponent, former Piscataway Councilwoman and Freeholder Mildred Scott, rather than Spicuzzo or Pawski.
"The morale got bad [under Sheriff Scott]," said Pisar. "It still is bad."
By contrast–perhaps because of his continued employement in the department–Pawski didn't have much negative to say about the Sheriff's Department.
"The officers are really great that work there," he told NBToday. He said it's "just some things as far administratively" that cause problems for him and his colleagues at what is otherwise a good job.
Observers in the know say they are not excited about either of the challengers, or the incumbent Sheriff.
"No one in the Republican party who is actually qualified wanted to run because you can't beat the Democratic machine," said one observer. "None of them will go to Freeholder meeting and speak up."
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.