In January, Ward F City Councilwoman Diane Coleman stood before a crowd of 250 or so supporters as Team Fulop opened its campaign headquarters at 2175 Kennedy Blvd.
“Anyone who knows Steve Fulop knows that if he is elected mayor, you can expect him to be involved,” Coleman told the crowd. “And not just involved, hyper-involved.”
The jubilant crowd laughed and cheered, well aware that the Ward E Councilman and mayoral candidate who bills himself as a government reformer, could often be found banging out an e-mail or text on one electronic device or other.
At the time that Coleman made this remark, Fulop’s chief rival in the upcoming mayoral election, Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy, was trying to force the Board of Education to release hundreds of e-mails between Fulop and several school board trustees.
The Healy campaign, which at the time was still in its infancy and looking to gain some momentum, hoped the e-mails would uncover a pattern of misconduct in which Fulop used his relationship with school board members to help his friends and campaign supporters get contracts in the school district.
Team Healy waged a battle with the school board attorney, a Fulop friend who initially refused to give up the e-mails, despite numerous requests under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). Hundreds of e-mails were eventually turned over only after an attorney for Healy took the matter to court.
Several of the e-mails showed that Fulop introduced key board members to friends, fundraisers, or contributors who later received contracts – but no e-mails show him specifically directing the board to award those contracts.
In the end, what, if anything, was learned from the inquiry and the mountains of correspondence that was released? Like almost everything else in this divisive mayoral race, it depends on who you ask.
With just two weeks left before the municipal election, both sides are eager to put their own spin on the months-long e-mail controversy.
For Fulop and his allies, the inquiry was a long, drawn-out, make believe scandal engineered to hurt him at the polls. The Fulop campaign argues that nothing of significance was learned as a result of the hundreds of e-mails that were ultimately released.
“Please don’t be penny wise and pound foolish.” – Steve Fulop, in an e-mail to the Board of Education president
“This is a classic Hudson County Democratic Organization tactic that’s been used for years to keep a corrupt machine in power,” said Fulop spokesman Bruno Tedeschi. “The tactic is to manufacture a story, push it on the press, get the headlines, then use those headlines in negative mailers. That’s exactly what Healy did as part of his political smear campaign to try to malign the only true reformer in this race, Steven Fulop.”
If there is one picture that emerges of Fulop through the e-mails that were released, it is one of – to use Coleman’s term – a hyper-involved elected official determined to set the course of a school board that he helped put in place. While some may applaud Fulop’s stewardship of the school board, others might wince at the councilman’s role.
E-mails that were eventually released due to Healy’s petition to the court, show Fulop expressing to school trustees his opinion on everything from whether they should use the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) to find a new superintendent,. to the budget.
In an October 9, 2011 e-mail to Sterling Waterman, who at the time was board president, Fulop wrote: “I know you are all considering having the national school board association help with the search. I can’t tell you what a big mistake this is. There is one shot at this and only one shot. If these government bureaucracies did the right job then there would not be a need for these firms that specialize in this sort of thing for big cities. This is what Jersey City deserves.”
He added, “Please don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. If you are not attracting big names, then you have failed. If you wait till March to find out what I am saying is accurate you will look horrible, with a bad impact to the city. Please think about it.”
At the time, the school board had hammered out a separation agreement with Dr. Charles Epps, the superintendent of schools, and knew they would need to conduct a search for his replacement.
A second e-mail, also sent from Fulop to Waterman, followed several weeks later on November 1, 2011. “Are you hiring a firm to do the search? What is the status? Time is ticking, let me know if you need help.”
Later that day, Waterman responded with an e-mail in which he confirmed, “Firm will be hired, no NJSBA.”
The school district ultimately hired two firms – West Hudson Associates and Young, Attea, and Associates – to assist with the superintendent search.
In a March 23, 2011 message that appears to have been posted online and circulated among Fulop’s Base Camp group – a network of Fulop-allied activists in Jersey City – he weighs in on a procedural move by longtime school board member Sue Mack.
Presumably addressing Bill LaRosa, Waterman’s predecessor as board president, Fulop wrote: “I just want to comment on the motion to table by Sue…The motion to table is nonsense. She was the fifth vote for the budget and thus had all the leverage. She presented a choice to the rest of the BOE of either ‘pass the budget’ or ‘table it.’ Of course, the majority would side with pass the vote in that situation/choice. Had she presented the choice as ‘table the vote’ or she will vote ‘no,’ I promise you the majority would have tabled it and set the special meeting. This vote was wrong.”
He then goes on to give his own personal thoughts on the budget.
“This contract had zero concessions from the union, included teacher layoffs, a tax increase to the public, an Epps $270K salary, zero public input time, programs with increased management and personnel despite declining enrollment, etc., etc., etc. It is frustrating, to say the least. We put a committee in place and [Sue] was selected, as people thought her experience is an asset…As a side note, there is a lesson for us as a team. When this is done, we need to be more engaged in making sure we have a cohesive team there and not just leave it to be the assumption that all will work itself out.”
According to Waterman, school board presidents grew accustomed to working closely with Fulop and weighing his opinions on nearly every policy decision.
“I know that when I was the board president I was like a conduit. Steve would contact me, or sometimes me and Marvin [Adames], and we would be the ones to then carry that message back to the rest of the team,” said Waterman.
Since he thought everyone was working together for the same purpose and goals, Waterman said he did not mind this working relationship with Fulop initially. The two later had a falling out, however, when, according to Waterman, their views on how best to improve public education diverged.
A return to the ‘secret meeting’
It was through a leaked e-mail that this newspaper was able to report last July on a confidential meeting between Fulop, school board members, Christopher Cerf, who at the time was the acting commissioner of education for New Jersey, school choice advocates, and education activists who were part of Fulop’s inner circle.
The e-mail, dated May 2, 2011, and titled “Cerf Meeting,” was sent to Waterman; Carol Lester, vice-president at the time of the meeting; Carol Harrison-Arnold and Marvin Adames, who had been elected to the board just days earlier, on April 27, but had not been sworn in yet; Ellen Simon, founder of Parents for Progress; and Shelley Skinner, deputy director of Better Education for Kids, a school choice advocacy group. Fulop’s e-mail was also sent to Leda Duif Shumbris, Mohamed Akil, and Tine Pahl.
In the e-mail, sent from Fulop’s personal Gmail account, he wrote, “Please keep in confidence as always. We are meeting at 274 Arlington Ave. tomorrow (Tuesday) at 6 p.m. See you then.”
The timing of the e-mail and Arlington Avenue meeting are significant because they came just one week after Fulop-backed candidates won control of the Board of Education. These events also took place at a time when the Board of Education was gearing up to oust Dr. Epps as the superintendent of schools and conduct a national search for his successor.
School board members Suzanne Mack, Angel Valentin, and Sean Connors were not invited to the meeting.
This e-mail was not part of the larger inquiry that followed months later. But it again shows Fulop’s willingness to steer the board’s business.
“Close to the end of my first year on the board, Steve was setting the agenda for the board,” Waterman told the Reporter.
While the Arlington Avenue meeting was the only meeting that took place in person, Waterman said there were a few conference calls between himself, Fulop, Cerf, and Dave Hespe, Cerf’s chief of staff. At least one conference call included these same players and board members Adames and Harrison-Arnold.
Only one topic was discussed during these conference calls, Waterman said: “How to get rid of Epps.”
No one outside Fulop’s close circle of intimates is included in the ongoing correspondence regarding policy matters that affect students throughout the school district.
A little help for his friends?
Healy’s inquiry may have failed to prove a pattern of blatant misconduct, since no smoking gun e-mail was uncovered in which Fulop directed board members to give contracts to his friends. Still, Fulop allies and supporters were introduced to Waterman and other trustees. A small handful of these companies were later given contracts.
One e-mail dated Feb. 29, 2012 in which Ryan Graham, a principal with Fairview Insurance, told Waterman to “vote down” a contract to Princeton-based insurance firm G.R. Murray. School Board attorney Ramon Rivera was copied on this e-mail, which was leaked by an anonymous source to NJ.com.
Graham is a friend of Fulop’s who has helped raise money for Fulop’s mayoral campaign. Last spring Graham’s company was selected to serve as the insurance broker for the school district.
(Fulop is not the only local politician to receive funding from Graham. He also donated to Healy’s 2009 re-election campaign and has in the past given money to several Jersey City candidates to the City Council and School Board.)
In October 2011, the law firm of Florio Perrucci Steinhardt & Fader received a one-year contract for $50,000, about 15 months after Fulop introduced Waterman to Lester E. Taylor, a partner at the firm. The contract was increased twice and topped out at $125,000
Paul Fader, a partner with Florio Perrucci, has helped Fulop raise money for his campaign.
In another e-mail to Waterman, dated Nov. 19, 2010, Fulop introduced the school board president to Linda Quentzel and her client Philip Johnston.
In that re-mail, Fulop writes: “I wanted to introduce you to Philip Johnston of Johnston Communications. He has a large communication business on multiple fronts and has been a long time friend of Senator [Robert] Menendez. I think it will be an intro that is great for both of you. I have also CCed Linda Q from the [Hudson County Schools of Technology] and she has been a terrific resource for me navigating the mine fields. She is someone who introduced Phil and I – worthwhile for you to make her acquaintance as well. Hope you can coordinate calendars.” In a separate e-mail to Waterman dated Feb. 7, 2011, Linda Quentzel wrote: “A pleasure speaking with you Thursday about my strategy company. I would like to set up a meeting with my client Johnston Communications to discuss opportunities at the Jersey City school system. Let me know any days/times after 3:30 p.m. you are available to meet.”
Fulop and Johnston are copied on this e-mail.
Quentzel has contributed to Fulop’s campaign. And although Johnston Communications was on the school board’s list of approved vendors dating back to at least 2006, it appears the company did not start receiving contracts until after Fulop introduced Waterman to Quentzel and Johnston.
In March of 2011, the Board of Education paid Johnston $237 for telephone services. Later that that year, in August, the school board approved $22,350 for Johnston.
Fulop has said in the past that such introductions were rare and that most of the introductions he made to the board went nowhere and did not result in any business.
“The public now knows Fulop was flat-out lying when he said he didn’t interfere with BOE business, as the e-mails that came to light show Fulop not only involved up to his eyeballs, but also steering six-figure contracts into the pockets of his top campaign contributors, the very definition of pay-to-play,” said Healy campaign spokesman Joshua Henne.
The end... or just the end of the beginning?
While Fulop has taken some heat for the May 2011 meeting and for introducing his friends to key board members, perhaps little else is likely to come from this inquiry. Voters who have paid attention to the Fulop e-mail drama can draw different conclusions about the mayoral candidate based on the same information that was uncovered.
“Anyone who was actually following this story can see that after more than 1,000 emails released by the Board of Education, not a single one showed Steven ever attempted to influence any board member on any contract, as Healy’s smear campaign suggested,” said Tedeschi.
For their part, the Healy campaign is trying to use the worst of what was uncovered to gain traction in the election. Last week, the Healy campaign released an ad featuring school children frolicking in what the commercial calls “Steve Fulop’s Pay to Playground.” The spot derides Fulop for allegedly using “his influence to steer a school contract to one of his top campaign contributors, even though they weren’t the low bidder or best qualified…When it comes to pay to play, Steve Fulop think our schools are his playground.”
Yet, Fulop is not the only politician to get involved in school politics lately. Healy recently showed up at a Jersey City Education Association meeting and told the membership that, if elected mayor, Fulop would privatize public education in the city. Fulop said it was a false allegation meant to scare teachers into voting for Healy.
One Healy confidant suggested there could be information still to be uncovered, since school board attorney Ramon Rivera refused to release some e-mails between Fulop and school trustees on the grounds that they were outside the scope of Healy’s e-mail request.
On April 21, an attorney for the Healy campaign filed a new OPRA request with the school board seeking all e-mails and text messages between Fulop, Waterman, and Adames regarding Fairview Insurance, Ryan Graham, Florio Perucci, or Paul Fader.
“It’s clear that Healy will say or do anything to deflect from the continuing scandal that rocked his administration,” said Tedeschi, referring to the 2009 Operation Bid Rig sting that saw the arrests of 46 public officials and religious leaders.
While Healy was never arrested or indicted in the sting, several of his key allies – including former Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini, Jersey City Council President Mariano Vega, and political consultant Jack Shaw – were. Healy has repeatedly defended his reputation, stating that he never did anything that was illegal and noting he was not arrested for any crime.
In the meantime, one activist is trying to use this episode to lobby for a stricter pay to play policy at the school board. In an e-mailed letter sent to school board members last week, Riaz Wahid wrote, “[It] is very important that we close this loop hole in the board’s current pay to play policy. Without closing the loop hole, the Jersey City Public Schools has advertised for broker services, [applications for which are] due on April 30. There are firms that have given money to Jersey City mayoral and municipal council committees. I request you to put this bid on hold till the loophole has been closed.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.