NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Hoping to become the next Governor, Phil Murphy drew dozens of locals to Gambino’s Inn on Remsen Avenue, a crowd that included one-third of the New Brunswick Housing Authority (NBHA) Board of Commissioners.
Just 15 minutes before Murphy’s “town hall” event on October 25, the board was supposed to meet for the first time since a scathing federal audit questioned over $1.4 million in spending.
But, the public meeting was canceled on very short notice, and now there will not be another NBHA Board of Commissioners meeting until after Murphy’s November 7 election.
The NBHA administers 429 low-income public housing units and 868 “housing choice vouchers,” but it also serves as the city’s powerful “redevelopment agency,” a very different job that sometimes conflicts with its stated mission.
The last-minute meeting cancelation is just the latest in a series of embarrassments for an agency that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) deemed to be “troubled” late last year.
HUD also deemed the NBHA “capital fund troubled,” and gave the agency a score of 41 out of 100, which ranked third-worst in the entire country and prompted HUD’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to investigate the authority.
Their recent audit found that NBHA failed to properly administer federal funds and recommends that they face funding cuts as punishment.
As pressure mounted against the agency, for the first time in a long time, residents of their Schwartz-Robeson public housing complex and other concerned citizens were planning to attend the NBHA’s regular meeting, which usually draws a small crowd.
The embattled agency still has not adopted a final budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1, and the agenda for the October 25 meeting included at least one other item crucial to fulfilling a “recovery agreement” signed with HUD.
But instead of adopting the advertised docket of nine resolutions, or addressing the swirling scandals for the first time in public, the board members ultimately got to take the night off.
Among those who ended up at Murphy’s event was a controversial aide to Mayor James Cahill, one who also serves on the Housing Authority Board.
As Cahill prepared to warm up the crowd for Murphy on the other side of the city, his aide Kevin Jones was both working late for the city government and attending the political event, all while skipping out on the important NBHA Board meeting.
Needing a “quorum” of at least four board members present to conduct business, the NBHA was forced to cancel their scheduled meeting, the second time such a problem has occurred this year.
“Kevin Jones was performing City duties until 7:15 p.m. that evening, causing him to be unable to attend the Housing Authority meeting any time prior to 7:25-7:30 p.m,” said Cahill’s spokesperson.
“His inability to attend the meeting prior to that time may have been part of the reason they were unable to obtain a quorum.”
Jones refused to speak to this reporter when asked why the meeting had been canceled, making a dismissive hand gesture and remaining silent as our camera was pointed in his direction.
Another NBHA board member, Yirgu Wolde, entered the hall at 7:43pm and stood in the back of the room for the remainder of the event.
“I just got here,” Wolde told this reporter when questioned more than forty minutes later, as the crowd dispersed.
For his part, Jones had spent most of the event standing next to New Brunswick’s Law Director and Chairman of the city’s Democratic Organization, TK Shamy, and Fire Inspector Victor Ortiz, whose brother was recently indicted over a bribery scheme at the New Brunswick Water Utility.
Jones has had his own brushes with the law, including when he was accused of election fraud in 2010, the last time Cahill faced an election opponent. He was also accused of punching a college student activist in the face during a hotly-contested campaign ten years prior.
In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided two county offices as part of their investigation into Cahill’s re-election campaign. The raid came less than six months after Jones was caught in a public park with a stack of mail-in ballots he was not authorized to have.
When campaign workers for Cahill’s opponents showed up at the park with a video camera, Jones smacked the camera from the hands of one of the workers and refused to return it, leading to an additional simple assault charge that was approved by Judge Frederick DeVesa.
The video went viral, but the charges against Jones, however, were quietly dismissed without explanation in December 2010.
After resigning from the Housing Authority Board in 2011, Jones was re-appointed to the body by the New Brunswick City Council in 2012, as we reported. Under the law, the Council appoints five of the board’s members, the Mayor appoints one, and the state Governor is responsible for appointing a seventh board member.
Because Governor Chris Christie failed to appoint anyone to the agency’s board during his time in office, the NBHA is already short by one member, with only six currently seated on the body.
As we reported, Anthony Cupano, the board member who had been appointed by Christie’s predecessor, was absent for 38 straight board meetings before finally leaving office last year.
The board has also seen a high rate of turnover with three other members leaving office in less than two years, sometimes under unusual circumstances.
For instance, just two weeks after taking office as Chairman of the NBHA Board, Luis Gonzalez resigned the position after an article pointed out that he was not eligible to serve on the board because he did not live in the city.
This newspaper also caught the agency overcharging its tenants with thousands in extrajudicial parking fines in 2016, a practice that was abruptly stopped partly in response to New Brunswick Today’s award-winning news coverage of the agency that has, until recently, received almost no outside scrutiny.
The embattled authority also lost a 2016 lawsuit brought by this reporter, one that alleged they had repeatedly violating the state’s public records law by withholding public documents and failing to respond to our lawful requests for government records.
This year, NBToday highlighted the agency’s dysfunction in a front-page article countering claims made by city officials last October that the authority did not suffer from “weak membership,” claims that the city government has avoided making so far in 2017.
After their July meeting was adjourned, NBHA Vice Chairman Anthony Giorgianni got in the face of this reporter and stuck his finger in the lens of the camera NBT has used to videotape the board’s public meetings.
The board had no scheduled meeting in August, and their September meeting, held the night before HUD-OIG released its damning audit report, was largely uneventful.
But now, the NBHA’s Board and their Executive Director John Clarke once again find themselves reluctantly in the media spotlight, after HUD-OIG identified $226,539 spent on “ineligible” costs, money that the federal government wants to be reimbursed, and more than $1.2 million for which it wants to see additional documentation to support.
Among the specific issues in the report was the agency’s repeated failure to ensure it was getting cost estimates to ensure it was paying fair prices when it procured various goods and services, including when the board paid their own architect over $276,000 to install a generator outside their headquarters in 2015.
The generator, installed by Joseph F. McKernan, Jr. Architects & Associates, will not provide electricity to any housing units in the event a power outage. Rather, it would keep the lights on at the NBHA’s Van Dyke Avenue headquarters, which is open only four days per week.
Also at issue in the audit was more than $87,000 in “excessive management fees” that the NBHA spent related to the demolition of a senior housing building that still has not been replaced six years later.
The NBHA’s secretive attorneys from the firm Manfredi & Pellechio were also hired in violation of HUD’s procurement rules. There was only one bid for the contract, but the authority could not demonstrate they had done anything to ensure they were not overpaying for their services.
Arguably, the lawyers at the firm, which represents nine different New Jersey housing authorities, should have known what was going on was improper.
Thanks to a questionable decision made by Manfredi & Pellechio, the NBHA still has not released their “Action Plan” that they submitted to HUD, stonewalling this reporter and incorrectly claiming the Action Plan is not a public document.
Despite that assertion, a different set of lawyers representing the city government, including TK Shamy, agreed to release the document to this reporter on October 31, in response to a request under the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
And in a stunning turn of events, city police have also agreed to investigate the NBHA for violations of a government transparency law, as a result of a complaint filed by this reporter.
September 27 was the last time the NBHA board met in public, the evening before HUD-OIG released their damning audit report.
It was a sorry scene that night, with the NBHA’s Board of Commissioners nominating a new Chairman: Board of Education President Dale Caldwell.
It was their second attempt to install Caldwell as their new leader. The problem was that Caldwell has only attended three of the board’s six meetings this year, and he was not present to accept the leadership role at the NBHA’s annual re-organization meeting in July.
During September’s bizarre meeting, after the disembodied voice of Caldwell accepted the key role, another unusual vote took place regarding a different leadership position: Second Vice Chair.
After spending the past two years as Chairman, Yirgu Wolde voted against his own nomination to avoid the responsibilities of being a board officer.
Board members laughed and joked as Wolde’s nomination failed, before appointing Cesar Ovando as Second Vice Chair.
After the board canceled their October meeting, Caldwell told this reporter that a special meeting would be scheduled one week later, but that never came to pass.
The NBHA Board’s next scheduled meeting is set for Wednesday, November 15 at 6:45pm in the “community room” of the NBHA’s headquarters, located at 7 Van Dyke Avenue. If the board can achieve a quorum and the meeting is actually held, it will be open to the public, and there will be a portion of the meeting reserved for anyone who wishes to speak.
The Murphy for Governor campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the matter, and declined an invitation for a formal interview with New Brunswick Today.
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, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.