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NORTH BRUNSWICK, NJ—Two corrections officers at the Middlesex County Adult Corrections Center were suspended after being charged with crimes in 2019, but county officials won’t say who they are or what they did.
Warden Mark Cranston and County Counsel Thomas Kelso have thus far protected the identities of the charged employees, and cleared one of them to return to work at the jail.
At a time when law enforcement transparency and accountability is at the forefront of the national discussion, Cranston and Kelso are actively violating the New Jersey Attorney General’s internal affairs policies.
The long-standing guidelines require all law enforcement agencies, including jails and prisons, to “periodically release a brief synopsis of all complaints where a fine or suspension of 10 days or more was assessed to an agency member.”
By now, a synopsis on each of these cases, and possibly others, should have been released.
But Middlesex County’s jail has not released any, despite repeated requests for this information from Warden Cranston over the past six weeks.
Kelso, who was initially under the impression the two corrections officers were convicted of crimes, didn’t hesitate to defend concealing their names and offenses committed at an August 20 public meeting.
As it turns out, both men are still defendants in criminal cases, despite what the jail indicated on their annual “professional standards summary.”
One of the officers was suspended for six months, “which was the maximum period that was appropriate for the offense he was charged with,” according to Kelso.
The other employee was “suspended without pay, pending termination,” Kelso said on September 17.
“Neither one were involved in incidents that were job-related. They were non-job-related,” assured Kelso, the county’s top lawyer.
Kelso is paid over $206,000 to be the Middlesex County Counsel, and can come and go as he pleases, as the job has no set hours.
While Passaic County ousted their top lawyer for refusing to work full-time, the elected leaders here have supported Kelso unconditionally even as he runs a law firm and works for big developers on the side.
Kelso represents nearly all of the major developers building in New Brunswick, including the New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), the notorious enterprise that built the county government’s headquarters, and much of downtown New Brunswick.
For weeks, Kelso was an obstacle to information about the corrections officers that found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
“Mr. Kratovil, that information is not available to the public,” Kelso told this reporter on August 20. “What’s posted on the website now for 2019 is the information that is required to be provided to the public.”
But the information Kelso provided was not accurate, according one of the elected officials who was questioned by New Brunswick Today.
When faced with New Brunswick Today’s first question during the public comment period of the meeting, asking how many CO’s had been convicted of crimes in 2019, Kelso answered confidently: “The answer is two.”
But, on September 3, Freeholder Shanti Narra admitted there was an error on the jail’s internal affairs summary form, which overstated the two matters as “convictions” in “Superior Court.”
The internal affairs form was corrected the following day, after the Attorney General was notified of the situation by New Brunswick Today.
Now it characterizes both cases as “Diverted” instead of “Convictions.”
Cranston, who took over as warden in 2014, after leaving a high-level position in the New York City Department of Corrections.
He lives in Union County, and is paid a $164,124 salary to run the corrections campus in North Brunswick, which includes the 1,200-bed jail, as well as a 100-bed juvenile detention center.
During Cranston’s first year as Warden, a young Plainfield resident named David Yearby died in the jail, and following the release of disturbing video, the county’s insurance company paid the man’s family $5 million this year.
Cranston also ran afoul of the county’s policy that required him to live in the county, until this reporter brought the violation to his attention in 2018.
While some of the inmates are serving sentences for criminal convictions, many have only been accused of a crime and awaiting trial, not unlike at least one of the corrections officers roaming the hallways.
The jail still has a policy of taking $100 cash “fee” from every inmate upon entry, in a move to bolster the county budget
“We’re not providing that information to you because it is not required,” said Kelso, after being asked what crimes the officers were convicted of.
This reporter responded with outrage at the secrecy to protect criminal officers, which carried over to the next Freeholder meeting on September 3.
Two weeks later, the Freeholder in charge of public safety provided a correction to our questions without acknowledging she was also correcting Kelso’s statements from the prior meeting.
“Charlie, I have to correct you,” Freeholder Shanti Narra said. “You keep referring to these two employees as convicted criminals, and they are not, and I want to clarify that.”
“Under our system of laws, a person is considered a convicted criminal when they have plead guilty and/or been found guilty, and been sentenced,” Narra lectured.
Referring to the officers as “gentlemen,” Narra gave information directly contradicting what Kelso had said at a prior meeting.
“These two individuals have open court cases… You have to be careful about the language you use, and based on that, we are not releasing their names since they have not been convicted,” Narra continued.
“There are proceedings that are going ahead as to both of those individuals. Neither gentleman has a conviction at this time.”
This reporter then cited the official form showing the two convictions and asked Narra, “Are you telling me that form is erroneous?”
“Yes, Charlie, and with apologies because that was erroneous.”
It’s unclear whether the county will finally release required information on the cases, now that they’ve admitted the suspensions doled out far exceeded the threshold standard of ten days, or if the jail administration will face any consequences for violating the Attorney General’s guidelines.
Unless and until some transparency rule or law is enacted, some of the only information available will be the sometimes-flawed summary forms filed by agencies like the Middlesex County Jail.
According to the revised document, the jail completed 19 internal affairs investigations in 2019, and five of those complaints were sustained. One of the five was categorized as “other criminal violation.”
Further complicating matters, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has made a thus far unsuccessful attempt to increase the minimum transparency when it comes to cases of “major discipline” at law enforcement agencies.
The new directives, implemented in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, would have expanded major discipline to include cases where an officer was suspended for five or more days, and for the first time, require the disclosure of the names of officers who received major discipline.
These cases in Middlesex County seem to show the need for more stringent requirements and enforcement of transparency.
But even though Grewal’s proposals are relatively modest, police unions have sued to stop the implementation of the directives, effectively halting public access to the names of officers found to have done wrong and leaving matters like these in limbo all over the state.
Ironically, the police unions cite the state’s Open Public Records Act, claiming it represents a ceiling for the maximum transparency allowed, rather than what it is: just one way to obtain records from the government.
New Jersey’s Appellate Division heard arguments in the case on September 16. Regardless of their ruling, it’s likely be appealed to the State Supreme Court.
The directives were set to go into effect on July 15, and the New Jersey State Police and several communities had committed to also release the names of those who faced major discipline over the past 10 or 20 years.
SPECIAL EVENT: Tonight, September 18 at 7pm, New Brunswick Today will be broadcasting a talk on journalism and police accountability that will include CJ Griffin, one of the attorneys who argued in favor of the Attorney General’s proposed directives. We encourage readers to join us there.
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.