Hey look, a genuine, brewing scandal in New Jersey:
While Newark was laying off police officers and begging for state bailouts, one of its most important contractors was siphoning off millions of city dollars in illegal payments, sweetheart deals, and risky stock ventures right under the noses of city leaders, according to a report released today by the state comptroller’s office. Until a judge appointed trustees to dissolve the agency last year, the Newark Watershed Conservation Development Corporation managed the city’s 35,000 acres of reservoirs and treated water for more than 500,000 customers in northern New Jersey. Between 2008 and 2011, the state comptroller alleges that agency leaders and insiders absconded with millions of public dollars. “This report documents an egregious and yet preventable abuse of public funds that was allowed to continue unfettered for years because of poor oversight,” said comptroller chief of staff Melissa Liebermann in a statement issued today with the 45-page report.
The former official who lined her pockets with taxpayers’ money says she acted at the direction of Mayor (and now US Senator) Cory Booker’s administration:
Linda Watkins-Brashear, the agency’s director and a political ally of former Newark mayor, now Sen. Cory Booker, wrote unreported checks to herself to the tune of $200,000, was awarded $700,000 in two severance packages, gave more than $1 million in contracts to her friends and ex-husband, and lost $500,000 in dubious stock ventures, the report states. When asked about the transactions by the state comptroller, Watkins-Brashear invoked her Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate herself, the report said. Through her attorneys, Watkins-Brashear said the report wrongly laid blame at her feet and said she acted at all times with the knowledge and approval of then Mayor Cory Booker’s administration. “The report provides the public with an inaccurate depiction of how the NWCDC operated, the propriety of the transactions at issue, and how some of the perceived problems came to pass,” attorney Michael Baldassare said in a statement. “Ms. Watkins-Brashear acted as she was directed, believed at all times that her actions were appropriate and duly authorized, and faithfully discharged her obligations for over 32 years.”
Team Booker has some explaining to do:
Since the 1970’s, the NWCDC was a steward of the city’s watershed land in Passaic, Morris and Sussex counties. By the 1990’s, the city was also contracting the agency to run Newark’s purification plant in Pequannock. Shortly after Booker took over, every aspect of the city’s water infrastructure was managed by the NWCDC through contracts and consultants. Despite investigations by the Newark Water Group, a watchdog collective of resident activists, as well as a series of financial misdeeds reported in The Star-Ledger, the Booker administration continued to fund no-bid contracts to the agency at the rate of roughly $10 million a year. The city was the agency’s only customer, meaning all of its funding came from public dollars.
The Star-Ledger reports that corruption and graft within the NWCDC system was an open secret among many in Newark’s political class. Phil Kerpen connects some dots that lead awfully close to Booker’s doorstep: As Mayor, Booker appointed his former law partner and campaign treasurer as the Watershed’s chief counsel. The agency then proceeded to pay his law firm approximately $1 million over the next five years, roughly 40 percent of which may have been unauthorized. And yes, this was the same law firm that was simultaneously paying out nearly $700,000 in severance compensation to Booker himself (click through for an explanation of Booker’s conflicting claims about the nature those pay-outs). Meanwhile, city government cronies were living high on the hog while residents and core services suffered. Thanks, taxpayers:
In 2010, the same year Newark laid off more than 160 police officers and about 800 other employees, Watkins-Brashear treated herself and 20 guests to a $1,400 feast in Atlantic City during the annual League of Municipalities conference, the report states. Watkins-Brashear and her guests dined that night on lobster, king crab and filet mignon, washed down with martinis, cognac and wine, according to the comptroller’s findings.
Will the national media run with this story, considering that it appears to entangle a rising star politician from New Jersey? Weeks of relentless and often sloppy coverage of ‘Bridgegate’ have driven Chris Christie’s numbers down from lofty highs, even as zero evidence has yet emerged that Christie was involved in the scandal. Will Booker get the same treatment?