Trustees of the bankrupt Newark Watershed Conservation & Development Corp. have filed suit against Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), formerly the mayor of Newark, in a case targeting the senator and a range of other and public and private officials for mismanagement and corruption at the NWCDC.
The non-profit was tasked with overseeing 35,000 acres of watershed in Newark, but saw its original mission devolve into a tangled mess of no-bid contracts, risky investments and misallocated public funds.
Booker has denied any wrongdoing in his role as mayor during the four-year period between 2008 and 2011 in which Executive Director Linda Watkins-Brashear lost the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars through a secret brokerage account, where she traded securities on margin and lost big in the 2008 market crash.
Watkins-Brashear also awarded no-bid contracts to friends, and to her ex-husband. She received $800,000 over and above her salary through checks she made out to herself as well as severance payments from the NWCDC.
Booker attorney Marc Elias, noting that the trustees have already spent close to a million dollars trying to dissolve the organization, defended the senator.
“They still haven’t accomplished this task and are now filing a frivolous lawsuit against Senator Booker and seemingly anyone else who has ever been within 100 feet of the Newark Watershed – at least 28 defendants, so far,” said Elias.
“Cory Booker not only faithfully and competently exercised his duties as they related to the watershed, he made the efficient and safe delivery of water to Newark residents the priority it should be,” he added.
Abuses at the NWCDC came to light after activists the Newark Water Group released a 2011 report on mismanagement within the non-profit.
“Cory Booker’s oversight of the NWCDC as mayor of Newark was not only irresponsible, it stands as a textbook example of how not to govern,” said member Guy Sterling said in an e-mail to Bloomberg Business.
“While it’s likely the corruption preceded his term of office, there’s no doubt it was also going on right under his nose. Booker either knew about the corruption inside the NWCDC and decided to look the other way or he didn’t know when it was his duty to know and stop it.”
After an investigation into the NWCDC, the state comptroller’s office issued a report on its findings in which it found that the no-bid contracts were indeed illegal. Though the report does not make any recommendations with regard to Booker, it describes the former mayor’s failure to appear at meetings determining who received contracts:
As chair, the mayor has a lead role in ensuring the Board properly manages the affairs of the NWCDC, sets appropriate policies and responsibly spends taxpayer funds. Notwithstanding that role, we found that during the time period covered by this investigation then-Mayor Cory Booker did not attend any Board meetings. The then-Mayor told OSC that he is an ex officio member of numerous boards and commissions, and did not personally participate on all of them in light of time constraints. He stated that with respect to the NWCDC, he relied on the City’s Business Administrator to attend Board meetings on his behalf. However, that individual resigned from the City’s employment and the Board in May 2010 and the Mayor never designated a replacement.
When we asked the then-Mayor about the lack of Board members, he said that he had difficulty moving Board nominees through the Council. We note, however, that the Mayor held the seat ex officio and thus did not need the advice and consent of the Council to designate an alternate for himself.
See the rest of the comptroller’s report here.