BY GUY STERLING
Guy Sterling, a longtime resident of Newark and a member of the Newark Water Group, spent almost 30 years as reporter with The Star-Ledger when the paper was located in the Newark.
Newark’s biggest scandal since the one that led to the downfall of the notorious mob-linked mayor Hugh Addonizio 50 years ago occurred during the administration of now U.S. Senator and presidential hopeful Cory Booker.
To date, eight persons have pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the looting of more than $1 million of taxpayer money from the entity that was created to manage the city’s watershed property in North Jersey and deliver clean drinking water to Newark’s homes, schools and businesses.
One other person charged in the case remains awaiting trial.
Two of the eight, including the former executive director, got lengthy prison sentences, while the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark has not said if its investigation of the entity, known as the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corp. (NWCDC), has concluded.
Booker served as Newark mayor from 2006 until 2013, when he won the Senate seat that became vacant with the death of Frank Lautenberg. One of his mayoral duties – as it had been with all Newark mayors since the mid-1970s – was to serve as a board member and chairman of the NWCDC, a nonprofit corporation.
In that role, he appointed members to the NWCDC’s board, was supposed to preside at all meetings, decide whether to poll the board on emergent matters, call meetings and sign contracts.
Booker has claimed that he jumped on resolving the NWCDC’s problems from the moment he first learned of them in March 2013. “When serious evidence of wrongdoing at (the NWCDC) emerged, (Booker) took immediate action to dissolve it and bring its operation under direct control of the City of Newark,” Booker’s lawyers wrote in a 2015 court filing.
But it simply cannot be the case it was that late in the game that Booker first found out the NWCDC was riddled with corruption and under scrutiny for serious violations.
The glaring question that remains unanswered is why Booker has chosen to make up a story.
By March 2013, a local watchdog organization calling itself the “Newark Water Group” had long since publicly issued a report detailing any number of fiscal and management improprieties inside the NWCDC.
Even in 2011, its members had begun appearing at televised Newark City Council meetings to express their apprehensions about the NWCDC. Since early 2012, there had also been articles in the local press, which had done some of its own investigation of the NWCDC.
The City Council was interested, too, with Donald Payne Jr., council president at the time and now the congressman representing Newark, writing to Booker on more than one occasion to ask questions and voice concerns about the NWCDC. The council adopted a motion in May 2012 stating that it no longer wished to approve funding for the NWCDC and asked Booker to develop an alternative as quickly as possible.
The council had also formed its own committee to investigate the NWCDC and, in August 2012, asked the state Attorney General’s Office for help in pursuing that probe.
And more than two years earlier, the New Jersey Office of the State Comptroller had begun looking into the NWCDC and requesting official records, something the highest levels in Newark City Hall could not have but known. In February 2014, the office would issue a scathing report on the NWCDC operation under Booker, saying from 2008 through 2011 it “recklessly and improperly spent millions of dollars of public funds with little or no oversight by the Board of Trustees or the City.”
Not long after he left state employment, Matthew Boxer, who’d headed the comptroller’s office, told a Columbia Law School audience that what his lawyers and investigators found inside the NWCDC was the most flagrant and alarming violation of the public trust he’d witnessed during his six years in that job.
What speaks most directly to Booker’s disingenuous claim, however, is an executive order he signed in September 2012 that continued providing money to keep the NWCDC operating after the city council had voted to cut off its funding amid all the public disclosures and complaints.
Why did Booker think he needed to sign such an order, which, by the way, continued funding of the NWCDC without any conditions and left open-ended the amount of money it was to receive, all while it was under investigation? What did he think had brought about those circumstances?
Interest in the NWCDC surfaced after Booker, starting in 2009, had attempted to get approval for a municipal utilities authority (MUA) to take control of the city’s vaunted public water system and lease it out to a private water company for a ton of money upfront and little to nothing on the back end.
Money from the lease was meant to get Booker through a severe budget shortfall Newark was experiencing. Additionally, the MUA would have had bonding capacity and any bonds it issued were to be fully backed by the city, the same scenario that doomed city finances in Harrisburg, PA.
But even after Newark residents in the hundreds turned out at public hearings in each of the city’s five wards the last week of July 2010 to assert their opposition to the plan in no uncertain terms, Booker continued pushing his MUA.
Under his proposal, the NWCDC would have simply morphed into the MUA: growing its annual budget from $10 million a year to $100 million; giving it the power to borrow hundreds of millions more; institutionalizing the corruption inside the entity that had begun several years earlier, and adding no safeguards to stop it.
You can only imagine what might have occurred if the people Booker campaigned to put in charge of Newark’s water and sewer systems with his MUA had 10 times as much money at their disposal to loot.
Much has been made of Booker’s failure to attend even one NWCDC meeting during his years as mayor, with some going so far as to suggest that his only lapse in the scandal was not paying greater attention to what the entity was doing.
But the public still doesn’t know what Booker knew.
There’s also reason to believe he may well have known something earlier than he professes given that his campaign treasurer and finance chairman, who’d been his former law partner, had gotten the plum job of serving as the NWCDC’s general counsel after Booker won the mayor’s job in 2006.
They most surely spoke about creating the MUA. Booker’s failure to be more forthright has only made questions of what he knew and when he knew it more pressing, and also cast a cloud over his management style.
Today, the NWCDC’s functions have been turned over to the city’s Water & Sewer Utilities Department, while a newly constituted NWCDC board is in federal court in Newark trying to recover the pilfered funds as it also pursues bankruptcy for the former nonprofit.
Most of the defendants in the civil suit brought by the new board either have settled or indicated they have no money to hand over. The only major defendant left is the law firm where Booker and the NWCDC’s former general counsel once worked together, even as Booker as an individual was dismissed from the suit on a technicality.
No doubt, Booker sees his years as mayor of Newark a long way back in the rear-view mirror these days as he’s moved on to a bigger stage in Washington, DC, and now seeks the nation’s highest office.
But there’s at least one important nagging question about his years as Newark’s mayor that remains and his explanation doesn’t hold water.
He may be gone, but it’s not forgotten.