State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) today urged the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission to investigate the Elizabeth Board of Education to demonstrate, in Sweeney’s words, that the state will not condone any political activity that threatens the delivery or education or the integrity of teachers.
“I would like to bring to your attention a matter of concern involving the unlawful solicitation of campaign contributions from employees of the Elizabeth Board of Education (‘Board of Education’),” wrote to Executive Director Jeffrey Brindle. “I believe the seriousness of this allegation requires an immediate investigation and, if warranted, sanctions to punish all misconduct.”
“Several individuals with close ties to the Board of Education have allegedly targeted school employees to donate to political causes. Significantly, these solicitations occurred on school property in violation of State law. It is believed that a number of individuals, including Annie Rooney, Pablo Muñoz, and Olga Fajardo, used public resources to engage in political fundraising and actually approached school employees at work to buy or sell tickets to campaign-related events. There is some indication that these fundraising tactics involved coercion. In addition, Rafael Fajardo, Jerome Dunn, Carlos Cedeño and Tony Monterio allegedly authorized or supported Rooney, Muñoz and Fajardo’s political activity. I believe an investigation would identify others who were involved in this campaign finance scheme or facilitated this reprehensible conduct.”
But Jeff Brindle, executive director of ELEC, said while he can’t confirm nor deny Sweeney’s complaint, the agency has no jurisdiction over unlawful solicitation of campaign contributions. That is a criminal matter and goes beyond ELEC’s purview, which is to monitor reporting of donations, Brindle said.
Sweeney’s letter comes in the aftermath of the June Democratic Primary in the 20th Legislative District, in which the challengers received the backing of the Elizabeth Board of Education and ultimately lost to incumbent state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-2) and his running mates.
“If true, the allegations not only compromise future elections, but threaten the integrity of the Elizabeth public school system,” said Sweeney. “The State and local taxpayers invest millions of dollars to deliver a high quality education to the children of Elizabeth. These resources were never intended to further the political goals of individuals who exploit their local school system to fund campaign coffers. In addition, the teachers and other school employees should not have to face harassment or coercive sales calls. Such a politically driven, hostile environment threatens their ability to fulfill their core mission: to educate the students of Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth Councilman Carlos Cedeno, chairman of the Elizabeth Democratic Party, called Sweeney’s letter a Lesniak follow-through from his Election Night promise to topple the Board of Education.
“First he shopped his charges of alleged campaign violations to the Superior Court using the court system and through his own law firm. Now he is using a ‘chit’ having a fellow Senate colleague pressure ELEC,” said Cedeno.
“He continues to attack those that oppose him who have told him his time his passed. As a former Board of Education member and as the present Chairman of the Elizabeth Democratic Party, I urge Lesniak to stop this vendetta,” added the local party chairman, who called Lesniak “Senator Lesniak of Mantoloking. “Just because he says it, doesn’t make it true. He is one desperate fellow. As a councilman I am concerned that Senator Lesniak’s agenda is more about attacks, division and intimidating those that oppose him. Even more than that, these press releases are mere smoke screens for the real corruption that is taking place with the Lesniak Team. Senator Sweeney take note, because if you want to stand with the people of Elizabeth, here is your opportunity. Protect us from the insider deals like Senator Lesniak’s lucrative legal representation of firms like IKEA, who are awarded corporate giveaways, endless tax abatements, not taxes for over next 15 years…all on the back of the local taxpayers.”