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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Concerns over fair and affordable access to clean, safe drinking water have repeatedly made headlines across the nation in recent years, but few communities have as bad of a track record as New Brunswick.
That track record just got a lot worse in December, as multiple unfolding scandals enveloped the troubled New Brunswick Water Utility (NBWU), and the agency recruited police to help them seize potential evidence of their own corruption from the New Brunswick Today (NBT) newspaper.
Detectives characterized their intrusion into our newspaper’s offices as a “hat in hand” request, but presented a warrant signed by a Superior Court Judge.
“You’re in possession of stolen property right now,” said one beaming Detective after taking the item in question: a water meter given to NBToday by a concerned reader.
It’s a meter that a former utility employee told us was “proof there is a crime committed here,” a revelation that sparked a news broadcast featuring the weathered hunk of metal and its curious readout: “000,000.89 cubic feet”
The warrant also would have allowed police to seize “a memory card or other medium” that contained the educational broadcast, even though it was already widely available online on Facebook, YouTube, and the NewBrunswickToday.com website.
The shocking seizure on December 20 came as concerns over the safety, quality and even the color of the city’s drinking water persist among the city’s residents, workers, and visitors.
It’s just the latest in a twisted series of attacks on NBT, from City Hall and the notoriously corrupt Middlesex County Democratic political machine.
The judge’s mother is a five-term Democrat politician, County Clerk Elaine Flynn, who is responsible for running local elections.
The New Brunswick Police Department (NBPD) still has not provided us with a copy of the “affidavit” referenced in the warrant, leaving many questions outstanding about their own justification for the intrusion.
Through an intermediary, Judge Colleen Flynn declined to provide a copy of the affidavit, and directed us to ask the prosecutor’s office, which has not yet responded to a request for the document.
Furthermore, the cops failed to provide a receipt for the property they seized, in a clear violation of Judge Flynn’s orders.
“You are hereby ordered, in the event you seize any… contraband, to give a receipt for the property so seized to the person from who it was taken or in whose possesion it was found,” reads the warrant.
The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO) has also been alerted to the violation of the order.
The police had originally sought to seize the video camera used to produce the live broadcasts in our studio, but Judge Flynn denied the request, according to the warrant.
However, in its place she allowed for a potentially more invasive siezure that could have resulted in the taking of “a memory card or other medium” that contained a copy of the broadcast featuring the meter.
After grilling this reporter, detectives were satisfied that no such memory card existed because the broadcast in question was live-streamed and was not pre-recorded or edited.
At least three years into its own “water crisis,” New Brunswick officials and government board members still regularly dodge or refuse to answer questions about water quality testing, and sometimes appear to be uninterested in concerns about contamination, while they sip from bottled water during public meetings.
Meanwhile, New Brunswick is on its fourth Water Director in three years, and the state is under the worst drought conditions experienced in more than a decade.
The embattled utility, which provides drinking water to New Brunswick, Milltown, and parts of Franklin Township, has been an ongoing headache for the Hub City’s seven-term Mayor James Cahill.
First installed as Mayor in 1991, Cahill’s most recent terms have been marred by controversies and scandals, many of them involving either the NBPD or the Water Utility.
In the years following the 2007 suicide of Cahill’s Water Director Shawn Maloney, the utility has struggled to retain staff and maintain its infrastructure, only recently “discovering” asbestos at the Water Treatment Plant, as well as at one of its two pumping stations.
That pumping station, just one of two the city has, had to be taken offline for months over another serious concern: a spill of PCB-contaminated oil into the city’s water supply, just three miles upstream.
The spill took place in Milltown, the same community that is up in arms about excessive levels of lead in the water, after officials took five months to issue an official public notice of the problem.
In a public meeting in December, the tiny borough’s chief water testing official defended the response, but said the town’s lead problem “could be a lot worse than we think.”
Water rates were increased a year ago, partly to pay for a short-lived, but expensive and secretive privatization effort that New Brunswick Today exposed just hours after Mayor Cahill signed the controversial deal.
It all has come in the aftermath of the revelation that Edward O’Rourke, the man who ran the city’s treatment plant for decades, had endangered hundreds of thousands of people over several years by covering up problems with the water distributed to customers.
He pled guilty to public corruption, and served a nine-month stint in state prison before being paroled last month.
Still reeling from a recent water quality violation and the news of the oil spill, another scandal raised new questions about one part of the NBWU that residents have been suspicious of for years: its Billing and Meter Reading Division.
On December 3, Cahill’s office announced that two more longtime Water Utility employees had been criminally charged, this time in a scheme to lower a mystery water customer’s bill.
Our initial report on the new scandal revealed that Joseph DeBonis had previously been charged with promoting gambling on Staten Island, and that his brother is a NBPD Detective who has made multiple donations to the political campaigns of the seven-term Mayor.
A week later, after having the water meter examined by an expert, we were ready to broadcast some more information about the scandal. Here is an excerpt of the script from our December 16 sh0w:
Now for the first time we have photos of [DeBonis’] co-defendant William “Billy” Ortiz the other man charged in this bribery and misconduct scandal. Ortiz allegedly took a $2,000 bribe in connection with the scandal.
Ortiz is a water meter reader for the city, and the criminal charges against him have sparked talk around town that this wasn’t the only scheme Ortiz is involved in.
An inside source told New Brunswick Today that both defendants had previously worked together, perhaps using city vehicles on city time, to tear down the signs of Cahill’s political opponents throughout the city and dispose of them.
As we reported, Billy Ortiz is the brother of NB Fire Inspector Victor Ortiz, as well as Board of Education member Benito Ortiz, and Carlos Ortiz at the Water Utility.
Both Ortiz and DeBonis are charged with official miscoduct. Ortiz is also charged with bribery, while DeBonis is accused of tampering with public records.
Since our last report, we learned that the two men were not arrested, they were just given summonses and told to show up for court at the Middlesex County Courthouse.
It’s still not clear who that mystery customer is who stood to benefit from their scheme. Whoever they were they must use a lot of water.
Now we also what to show you a photo of this man, Thomas Boylan Sr. He has not been charged in this ciminal case, which so far we’ve been led to believe is about one bribe, one time.
Our sources tell us that Boylan, who runs the utility’s Billing Department, has the power to do favors for certain customers, and that Boylan would frequently talk one on one with some of the city’s bigger water customers, including the owners of car washes and laundromats.
Some have even suggested there are elaborate schemes are going on to keep some people’s water bills low, while other customers unwittingly foot the bill for the corrupt scheme.
That’s where our physical evidence comes in. My guest today is an inanimate object, a water meter that NBToday obtained from a confidential source.
That’s when we showed our audience the star of that episode: a water meter.
One of the thousands of viewers who watched that broadcast was apparently Water Director Mark Lavenberg, who admitted to one national news outlet that it was he who reported the meter “stolen” after seeing the show.
After the questionable search warrant made national news, with inquiries pouring in from major media outlets including POLITICO and BuzzFeed News, City Hall took the opportunity to publicly lash out at New Brunswick Today, and trash this reporter in a highly unusual public statement to the press.
The statement sent out by city public information officer Jennifer Bradshaw, a former journalist, implied that this reporter was guilty of crimes, including “tampering” with the evidence in question.
“If Mr. Kratovil’s assertion that this meter may very well have been involved in the criminal activity, which is the subject of a current investigation, hopefully his tampering with this potential evidence does not compromise the investigation,” read the release, which appeared on Mayor’s Office letterhead but has not been posted to the city website.
“[The] City essentially accuses Charlie of two crimes here — receiving stolen property and evidence tampering,” remarked Brian Amaral, a journalist who has previous covered the NBPD’s questionable tactics, calling the city’s statement “absolutely delusional.”
Tensions between the NBPD and NBT have now reached their steepest peak since the summer of 2014, when this reporter was arrested on charges that were later dismissed, after filing a lawsuit over secret police maps and sparking an unrelated internal affairs investigation a few months later.
It’s also not the first time City Hall has issued a press release slamming this reporter.
In March 2014, the city had issued a scathing release, including a quote from NBPD Director Anthony Caputo that downplayed our bilingual newspaper as a “political blog.”
The release criticized NBT’s coverage of a turf war between NBPD and the Rutgers University Police Deaprtment, and slammed this reporter for filing a lawsuit after the city denied our request for copies of the jurisdictional maps that the two departments use.
The city made the bold and unsubstantiated claim that the lawsuit “could jeopardize [the] security of city residents.”
That decision largely backfired, shining a brighter light on the police transparency case, one that the city’s attorneys went on to lose when they faced off with public records law expert Walter Luers.
The recent search warrant incident also has some parallels from an incident in the summer of 2014, when this reporter obtained two NBPD ticket books that had been carelessly discarded in a public trash can by a police officer.
At the July 2, 2014 City Council meeting, as this reporter questioned the Council about the ticket books, NBPD Captain JT Miller seized the books without permission.
Coincidentally, that came just moments after this reporter exposed Mayor Cahill’s secret Water Utility privatization deal.
A week later, this reporter was behind bars, held in lieu of $25,000 bail on charges that would later be dismissed. Two officers were eventually punished for disposing the ticket books improperly.
The same detective who arrested this reporter that time around is apparently investigating the new case involving the warrant to search the downtown office of NBT.
That man, Thierry Lemmerling, has made a name for himself investigating some city corruption cases, including a separate misconduct and bribery scandal that led to charges against four NBPA employees, and busting two firefighters for defrauding the disability system.
Joining Lemmerling in the Paterson Street police action was Detective Brandon Epstein, known as the NBPD’s resident technology expert, who specializes in capturing data from mobile devices, computer hard drives, and surveillance camera systems.
At stake in the 13-minute video-recorded encounter was more than just a rusty hunk of metal that might be relevant evidence in a corruption case.
According to many advocates, police have run afoul of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees “freedom of the press,” because they did not go through a formal subpoena process, as outlined in the federal Privacy Protection Act of 1980.
That law was meant to prevent exactly this situation, by requiring police to get a subpoena to seize materials from a newsroom, which would give the news outlet a chance to challenge the attempt.
“It’s very clear that the city of New Brunswick’s targeting of New Brunswick Today is meant to intimidate reporters as well as any sort of investigation into the activities of both the city and the specific case of the Water Utility,” an organizer with the media advocacy organization Free Press told BuzzFeedNews.
The organizer, Mike Rispoli, wasn’t the only one who found the NBPD’s actions to be serious cause for concern. Brian Thompson of NBC New York tweeted that the video of the siezure was “hard to watch.”
Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation agreed it was “beyond disturbing.”
“Great work by New Brunswick Today,” tweeted Timm. “They captured this blatant violation of press freedom by NB police on video.”
As a result of this unlawful intimidation, New Brunswick Today wants to stress that we always protect our sources.
“New Brunswick Today wants to make it crystal clear that we are completely committed to protecting our sources,” this reporter wrote in a statement to fellow journalists on Christmas Day.
“I am willing to go to jail to protect mine.”
Judge Colleen Flynn’s decision to approve the search warrant for NBT’s offices on Paterson Street set in motion a strange series of events that ultimately led to a sharp backlash against the city government.
The pushback came from community members and our readers, as well as journalists and the organizations that support them.
“It is the nature of journalism that reporters sometimes receive leaked information. Sometimes that material is illegally obtained by a third party. However, that does not make it illegal for journalists to use it,” explained the non-profit NJ Society of Professional Journalists (NJ-SPJ).
The organization, which earlier this year awarded this newspaper its prestigious Awbrey Award for Community-oriented Local Journalism for our coverage of the Water Utility, issued a public statement “strongly” objecting to the warrant:
Perhaps the most famous example of leaked information obtained by a third party is The Pentagon Papers. In that landmark 1971 case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of The New York Times to publish a classified military report about American involvement in Vietnam that had been provided to the newspaper by a military-analyst-turned-whistler-blower named Daniel Ellsberg. The revelations helped turn public opinion against the war.
In the New Brunswick case, the “leaked information’’ is an old water meter. By calling the old water meter “stolen property,’’ the New Brunswick police found a pretext that allowed them to use the court system to muzzle Kratovil.
That’s the real issue.
If someone is tampering with water meters, clearly honest people are paying the price. Why on earth would any governmental agency not want this investigated as fully as possible? Instead, the actions of the New Brunswick Police Department suggest they are more interested in chilling the First Amendment and preventing New Brunswick Today from digging further into a matter of real public concern.
More than a dozen supporters of New Brunswick Today attended the December 21 City Council meeting, including several who spoke in opposition to the warrant.
“I don’t know if there are any potential charges against Mr. Kratovil and the water utility whistleblower, but I demand the town drop any potential charges and face what is really going on,” said Jennifer Goldberg, a city resident and reporter for New Brunswick Today, according to a report by the Home News Tribune’s Nikita Biryukov.
Biryukov also quoted another citizen who was concerned that police may have violated the law with their seizure.
“I believe that he should be protected under the 2001 Supreme Court Case Bartnicki v. Vopper, as well as the New Jersey Reporter’s Shield law and whistleblower laws,” said Eric Nuber.
The next City Council meeting is scheduled for Thursday, December 29 at 5:30pm in the top floor of City Hall, located at 78 Bayard Street in downtown. There is free parking located behind the building.
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.