NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Yirgu Wolde, a longtime member of the New Brunswick Housing Authority (NBHA) Board of Commissioners, has been charged with criminal harassment for aggressive behavior and threatening this reporter with physical violence.
The embattled public board reached a new low on November 15, as they faced an angry crowd at their first public meeting in seven weeks, before Wolde issued the verbal threat on his way out of the meeting.
"The meeting is over so I'll knock you out," Wolde said on his way out the door, just seconds after making his right hand into a fist while approaching this reporter during a tense discussion.
The New Brunswick Municipal Court found probable cause to charge Wolde with criminal harassment, under state statute 2C:33-4, which reads: "A person commits a petty disorderly persons offense if, with purpose to harass another, he… subjects another to striking, kicking, shoving, or other offensive touching, or threatens to do so."
The summons approved in response to this reporter's complaint orders Wolde to appear at the court on February 21 at 8:45am.
Wolde has served as a board member for the agency, which runs the city's public housing and Section 8 housing voucher programs, since at least 1998, when he was appointed to the position by Mayor James Cahill.
The federal government had previously declared the agency "troubled" and released a scathing audit report questioning over $1.4 million in NBHA spending in September.
Because the NBHA doubles as New Brunswick's redevelopment agency, the authority's board also gets to select the companies that get to build in the city's designated "redevelopment areas" and set the terms that developers must abide by.
The chaos that followed the 86-minute public meeting was all captured in a viral video that also included NBHA Chairman Dale Caldwell, who also serves as President of the city's Board of Education, falsely accusing this reporter of breaking the law by recording the conversation, with NBHA attorney Joseph Manfredi appearing to back him up.
Mayor Cahill admitted he reviewed the video, but nevertheless defended Wolde, calling him a "dedicated and committed member" of the NBHA Board and saying that he won't be taking any action on the matter.
"While the conduct certainly wasn't exemplary, it really isn't actionable. I don't see what action needs to be taken at this point," Cahill told New Brunswick Today on December 1.
At the January 17 City Council meeting, the four members present said they, too, had not taken any action, and had not spoken to Wolde about the incident.
Wolde may face repercussions at his dayjob, where he earns an annual salary of $113,512 serving as a Director at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (HMFA).
Wolde's former boss at that position, Anthony Marchetta, left the agency's top job shortly after he was questioned about Wolde's threat.
"It has nothing to do with the agency, so do what you gotta do," Marchetta told this reporter on November 30 after walking away from a series of questions about his subordinate's behavior.
Videos of Wolde's threat have spread around the internet like wildfire, garnering additional visibility thanks to coverage in the Home News Tribune.
Despite the video, Wolde flat-out denied threatening to knock this reporter out when reporter Nicholas Muscavage reached him at his job, according to a November 17 Home News article:
According to Wolde, he never said anything to Kratovil at the NBHA meeting.
"I never said that," Wolde said after being asked Thursday if he told Kratovil that he would knock him out.
He also said that Kratovil "lies anyways."
"I didn't say anything, sir," Wolde said. "He was taping the video after the meeting was over, so it has nothing to do with the meeting."
Caldwell, who took over for Wolde as Chairman of the NBHA Board last year, accused this reporter of "faking" outrage over Wolde's threat: "You are in my prayers because there is a good person somewhere inside of you that understands the inappropriateness of your tactics like faking the feeling of being threatened."
Cahill's running mate, Councilwoman Rebecca Escobar, is the designated "liason" between the City Council and the NBHA.
She responded to the video via text message on December 8.
"I don’t have any comment but when people are upset or feel accosted, it is difficult to have a productive conversation," said Escobar, who also served on the NBHA Board before running for elected office.
"I personally do not condone any form of violence or aggression…it is not conducive to a civil dialogue despite the surroundings circumstances."
As we reported, the NBHA was deemed "troubled" by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), sparking their Office of Inspector General to conduct the audit that was released on September 28, and leading to much of the uproar at the November 15 meeting.
The NBHA board was supposed to meet in October, but cancelled the meeting due to a lack of available board members, a familiar problem for the embattled agency.
Later that night, New Brunswick Today tracked down Wolde and another board member, Cahill aide Kevin Jones, attending a campaign event for Governor Phil Murphy.
"I just got here," Wolde told this reporter, some 40-plus minutes after he arrived at the event.
Now, both Wolde and Jones have viral videos that depict them intimidating others.
Jones got out from under criminal charges that he assaulted activists opposing the Mayor's agenda back in 2000, and again in 2010, when an opposing campaign got video of Jones in Recreation Park with a stack of ballots.
The 2010 video of Jones smacking a camera out of the opposing campaign worker's hands and tussling with him went viral, making its way into a jaw-dropping television report featuring News12's Marci Rubin.
A few months later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) executed raids on the Middlesex County Board of Elections and the County Clerk's Office, saying it was related to an investigation of Cahill's re-election race.
Yet, the case against Jones was quietly dropped and he continues to earn a taxpayer-funded salary working in the Mayor's Office. He briefly left the NBHA Board after the scandal, but returned thanks to an appointment from the City Council.
Jones and Wolde aren't the only members of the board with videos of them intimidating their perceived opponents online, thanks to New Brunswick Today.
Just moments before Wolde's threat on November 15, Caldwell used his own bullying tactics, threatening to call the police on this reporter for recording him.
Our camera also captured video of NBHA Vice Chair Anthony Giorgianni getting in this reporter's face after a meeting in July 2017, where he flirted with the idea of unplugging the camera.
That leaves only three members on the seven-member board that haven't been featured in videos intimidating, threatening, or assaulting members of the public, including one who has not yet attended his first meeting.
The NBHA Board's December 20 meeting was also cancelled due to the lack of a quorum, the threshold of four board members that is required to do business under the law.
Their next scheduled meeting is set for January 24 at 6:45pm at the authority's headquarters, located a 7 Van Dyke Avenue.
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 was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.