'Political shenanigans' made him do it Responding to ethics charges, Garcia accuses mayor, his ally, of deal-making
by Tom Jennemann
Mar 14, 2006 | 2620 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In the ethics case of Theresa Burns v. Carmelo Garcia, the defense strategy is turning out to be just as interesting as the charges.

In written testimony before the New Jersey School Ethics Commission, Board of Education President Carmelo Garcia, through his lawyer, accuses Mayor David Roberts, who is normally his political ally, of pressuring him to "participate in a series of political deals involving key positions in the school district, including superintendent, business administrator, assistant business administrator, board secretary, and a vacant seat on the Board of Education itself."

Because of the alleged political pressure that was being applied, Garcia, who is also the city's director of Human Services, claims that he was "so distracted by the prevailing pandemonium that he inadvertently neglected to recuse himself from voting on his brother Sammy Garcia's promotion to the position of full-time maintenance worker. Sammy Garcia's promotion was part of a 55-item agenda on the evening of Aug. 30, 2005.

Garcia has also been accused of improperly voting on the contract of FitzMedia, a company owned by county freeholder Maurice Fitzgibbons. Garcia is employed as a legislative aid to the County Freeholders and is assigned to Fitzgibbons. On this count Garcia claims that because he is an employee of the Board of Freeholders and not Fitzgibbons, there is not a conflict.

The suit was brought by Theresa Burns, a fellow member of the Board of Education and a political ally of former mayoral candidate and current Board of Education member Frank Raia.

The School Ethics Commission is now collecting testimony and evidence. The Hoboken Reporter has obtained a copy of the "verified answer" written by Garcia's attorney David Ruben. The response is signed and certified by Garcia and was received by the Ethics Board as testimony on Oct. 27, 2005.

Garcia's defense

To understand Garcia's defense, it is important to start at the beginning. During the month of August 2005, the Board of Education was in the midst of political chaos and infighting.

On the table were proposals for several controversial changes within the Board of Education, including a plan to buy out Superintendent of School Patrick Gagliardi's contract, the possible resignation of an elected school board member who hoped to get a job as the paid board secretary, and the hiring of a new assistant business administrator.

With so much upheaval, there existed serious political friction and personal animosity, which led to board members walking out of meetings, and booming yelling matches behind the doors of closed sessions. In his response to the Ethics Board, Garcia claims that Roberts was guiding the political process from behind the scenes.

"The evidence will show that the filing of [the complaint] by board member Burns was for the purpose of distracting attention away from the improper and heavy-handed political shenanigans by the Roberts-controlled board majority, and as a preemptive strike to undermine the credibility of any public complaints [Garcia] may have intended to raise in the future concerning their activities," reads the response.

"The evidence will show that throughout Roberts' tenure as mayor of the City of Hoboken, he has attempted to control the operations of the Board of Education, an independently elected public body, as if he personally ran the school system. This pattern of behavior has included, among other things, regularly meeting in private with Board of Education members, individually and collectively, where he would dictate personnel and other decisions affecting the day to day operations of the school district."

No comment on both sides

The Reporter asked Garcia to respond and elaborate on his testimony.

"On the advice of my attorney in that matter, I decline to do so," Garcia said in a written statement. "The Commission has requested both parties to keep this information confidential at this stage of the proceedings." He added that his "statement filed with the Commission was submitted under oath."

But even though Garcia's testimony contains pointed criticism directed squarely towards the mayor, it now appears that those fences, at least publicly, have been mended.

Garcia commented on Roberts' current positions on public education in Hoboken.

"The mayor's positions are matters of public record, and I believe he has been a strong advocate for progress in our city," Garcia said in his statement. Garcia has also been leading the charge on the board to bring in the former commissioner of education William Librera as a consultant (see the cover story of this issue of the Hoboken Reporter). Roberts has been a major advocate of Librera and has made his involvement one of the cornerstones of his education-reform initiative.

Roberts, also, would not directly respond to the accusations made in Garcia's "verified answer" the Ethics Commission.

His spokesperson Bill Campbell added that it is the "subject matter of an ongoing inquiry and upon the advice of counsel the mayor is not permitted to comment upon any issues related thereto."

But Roberts did say that there is nothing wrong in being active in the education reform process. Roberts made improving the public school system one of the highlights of his campaign platform during last year's run for re-election. He has said that changes are needed to raise the bar in the city's public schools.

"Since the first day of my term as mayor, I have continually sought to formulate plans to upgrade our public education system," Roberts said. "This has ranged from linkages with Stevens Institute of Technology and the private sectors to inviting former state Education Commissioner Dr. William Librera to review our schools and make recommendations to meet the needs of the 21st century."

He added that, "Our children are our future, and their educational needs are our community's top priority. As mayor, it is my responsibility to work with the Board of Education, school facility, parents and all entities willing to improve our schools."

More about the complaint

The first major issue on the table, in August 2005, was a proposal to buy out Gagliardi's contract. Rumors were circulating that Roberts had been pushing behind the scenes to move the district in a direction that doesn't feature Gagliardi.

This was the first screw of political pressure, Garcia's lawyer said.

"Two weeks prior to the Board of Education meeting scheduled for Aug. 30, 2005, when [Garcia] is accused of violating the School Ethics Act, Roberts advised [Garcia] that he wanted the employment contract of Superintendent of Schools, Patrick Gagliardi, bought out so that he could replace him with a hand picked successor and asked [Garcia] to carry out this mission on his behalf," reads the response.

Roberts has since said that he would like an open process to pick Gagliardi's successor. Roberts has also said that one of the reasons that he has supported bringing in Librera as a consultant is because he can help the district develop a plan for succession that involves the school administration, teachers, parents and the community at large.

In his response to the Ethics Board, Garcia's lawyer said that after being allegedly pressured by Roberts, he went to meet with Gagliardi "to find out for himself exactly what was transpiring."

Garcia's lawyer added in the response that, "Gagliardi advised [Garcia] that he had not committed to accept Roberts' proposal and would only consent to leave the school district upon payment of a substantial amount of money, well beyond what had been offered to him."

It continues that Garcia then realized that following through with a buyout of the superintendent would "place a far greater financial strain on the school district than he had even remotely imagined from what had previously been told to him."

After talking to Gagliardi, according to Garcia's response, he went to his Hoboken city office. Once there he "was told to report to the mayor's office."

"Upon arriving at Roberts' office, [Garcia] found board members James Farina, Maggie Perotta, Theresa Burns, Raia, and Anthony there, already meeting with Roberts," reads the response. "There ensued a series of heated discussions in which [Garcia] was accused by Roberts of interfering with a political deal Roberts had already put into place."

Eventually, after much debate at the Aug. 30 Board of Education meeting, a split board voted to buy out the superintendent's contract in two years, at a cost of about $350,000 to the district.

The board secretary controversy

But the Gagliardi controversy wasn't the only one at the time. Eyebrows were also raised when the board accepted the resignation of board member David Anthony so he could take a paid position as board secretary. Anthony was hired by a split vote of 5-4 to become the board's part-time secretary for a salary of $39,500. Anthony also works full-time as a manager for the Department of Motor Vehicles in North Bergen. With 11 years on the board, Anthony was the second-longest tenured member.

At the time, Garcia objected and said that Anthony should not gain financially from his elected office. He also questioned the move because the board secretary position was still filled by the district's Business Administrator, Anthony Curko, who for decades performed those duties gratis. In Garcia's response letter, his lawyer claims that Roberts personally negotiated Anthony's deal.

"Upon learning of this plan, [Garcia] expressed to all concerned his position that this was unlawful and otherwise inappropriate since the position was not vacant, and that it raised serious ethical and legal concerns and should not be pursued," reads the response.

One argument over this issue between Garcia and Anthony at City Hall became so heated, stated Garcia's response, that Garcia became so "distraught that he punched a nearby wall and suffered a fractured hand."

Anthony's replacement

But the controversies on the board didn't stop there.

The resignation of Anthony left an opening on the nine-member board. Ron Rosenberg, who ran for City Council on Raia's ticket in 2005, was picked for the spot. Burns, who filed the ethics complaint, also ran for City Council on Raia's ticket.

"Raia felt that Rosenberg's appointment would be his concession [for supporting Roberts]," reads Garcia's answer to the ethics board.

John Pope hired

In yet another move at the time, the board hired former longtime school board member John Pope as its assistant business administrator at $95,000 per year.

The hiring of Pope also had some interesting political connotations. Pope is a close friend and supporter of Councilman Michael Russo, and before him a supporter of his father, Mayor Anthony Russo. Some viewed that hiring as a show of Roberts' thanking Michael Russo for supporting him in the June runoff.

"The plan put forth by Roberts was that John Pope, a former board member and one of Michael Russo's political allies who also ran for mayor and then supported Roberts in the runoff, would become the assistant business administrator, and later ascend to business administrator," reads Garcia's response. "Anthony would become board secretary and Gagliardi would be bought out and replaced with a superintendent that Roberts felt he could control."

Ripples coming

In the end, Garcia's defense is that "the circus atmosphere" prevailing at the Board of Education momentarily distracted his attention from the fact that his brother's promotion was embedded in a consent agenda of 55 items. That very well might be successful. But now, even if Garcia is once again taking the company line, the fact that he presented the defense that accused the mayor of meddling and orchestrating political deals within the Board of Education is likely to send shockwaves through the city's political community.

Tom Jennemann can be reached at tjennemann@hudsonreporter.com.
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