The report of the New Jersey State Auditor concerning the Belleville school district’s deficit in 2014.

Dear Attorney General Grewal,

You are obviously a busy man, so I will be direct.

The residents of Belleville – a small town in Essex County – have patiently waited for your office to investigate the shameful – and possibly criminal – acts allegedly committed by school administrators and members of the Board of Education. These acts led to a $3.7 million deficit in the Belleville school district at the end of the 2014 fiscal year.

State Auditor Stephen Eells released a report on June 5th, 2018, detailing his office’s findings regarding the actions (or lack thereof) leading to the deficit. Your office received a copy of this report the same day it was released to the public. The report’s second page ends with the sentence, “Certain matters were referred to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice.”

Your office has earned a reputation for being tough on public corruption. You even created a special unit — the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA,) – its stated purpose to “combat corruption and strengthen confidence in government institutions.”  The OPIA received media attention for its investigations of political corruption. OPIA’s investigations led to charges against five former or would-be politicians in Morris and Hudson counties who allegedly took bribes, a Morris County attorney accused of allegedly not disclosing political contributions to politicians in Bloomfield – Belleville’s neighbor – when submitting proposals for public contracts to the Township of Bloomfield, and two Paterson politicians and two other men accused of alleged election and ballot fraud. Your office has much to be proud of.

“We must root out the corruption and misconduct that undermine faith in our public institutions. Our country and our state face significant challenges, and we won’t be able to meet them if people do not trust that those in authority are working single-mindedly for the public good. We must create a culture of accountability where powerful individuals and institutions know that they must act with integrity or else face the consequences.”

Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, in announcing the creation of the office of public integrity and Accountability (OPIA)

Belleville residents – essentially bilked out of $3.7 million due to all manner of incompetence and mismanagement as documented in the Eells report, as well as alleged political featherbedding – expect justice, or at least some measure of accountability. It’s little comfort that those allegedly involved no longer work in the district, or that those Board of Education members allegedly involved — or at least potentially complicit — in this travesty were either voted out or decided not to run again.

In short, Belleville residents were wronged, and it’s proper for your office to review the report’s findings, investigate and bring appropriate charges, if warranted.

Belleville residents called for state assistance in investigating the school district as early as 2013. Months of public outrage and media reports finally got the state’s attention. The New Jersey Department of Education sent Thomas Egan to monitor district spending and policy changes designed to correct what had occurred. Mr. Egan, Schools Superintendent Richard Tomko and the Board of Education addressed the State Auditor’s findings and implemented the report’s recommendations.

Belleville United Coalition (BUC,) a group of concerned Belleville residents, in 2015 and again in 2019, sent formal letters to the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General requesting an investigation into the series of events leading up to the 2014 deficit. I know of a few private Belleville residents who have also written you in the past few months asking again for an investigation. Criminal investigations understandably take time; however, it’s been slightly longer than two years since your office received the State Auditor’s report.

The residents of Belleville were victimized by mismanagement, impropriety and alleged unethical political influence in the school system, and they pay for it to this day. The true victims, however, were Belleville’s children.

Belleville is a small town — diverse, middle-to-working class and densely populated. The average household income is $70,000, and property taxes are high for such a small town. The school district — funded by Belleville taxpayers — pays close to $500,000 a year for the state loan provided to close the 2014 deficit. Consequently, Belleville residents will apparently be paying back that loan for at least the next 6 or 7 years, all because of actions for which were not responsible.

The state’s assistance. such as sending Mr. Egan and loaning the district money, is certainly appreciated. Yet, Belleville lacks closure because many residents believe those allegedly responsible somehow “got away with it.” Residents did their civic duty, voting out those Board of Education members who — if perhaps not directly involved in the matters disclosed in the report – were in a position to intervene, but failed to do so. Therefore, we now need your office to investigate whether or not anything criminal occurred and if so, to bring appropriate charges.

Belleville residents expect our legal system to make the town whole as best it can. We look to you – the person heading our state’s legal system – to investigate this truly sad moment in our town’s history. Your office wants citizens to have faith and confidence in the government institutions established to serve them; action from your office in this matter will, I believe, go a long way toward restoring the faith and confidence of my fellow Belleville residents.

In closing, allow me to quote the great American civil rights leader, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Justice for Belleville has been delayed, but its residents abide in the hope that it will no longer be denied.

Sincerely, I remain,

Frank F. Fleischman III (FF3)
Lead Editor
Belleville Watch