Baraka sued by former Newark corporation counsel over firing

By Bill Wichert | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on September 25, 2015

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka at work in his city hall office in Newark, NJ 2/23/15

 

NEWARK — A former corporation counsel for Newark is suing Mayor Ras Baraka over allegations she was fired earlier this year for refusing to follow the mayor's orders and other whistle-blowing activities.

But city officials claim Karen Brown's allegations are baseless and they vowed to vigorously defend against them.

The lawsuit alleges the mayor retaliated against Brown for, among other issues, reporting certain matters to state officials and refusing to approve a shared services agreement. Brown claims the agreement was forged and based on false information.

Brown also describes a culture at Newark City Hall where city workers were not allowed to bring cell phones to meetings with the mayor and were pressured to make political donations to Baraka.

Her attorney, Charles Sciarra, described Brown in a statement as "a paragon of integrity and professionalism in New Jersey's legal community" and said she is "greatly saddened" by the need for the litigation.

"However, she cannot let stand unchallenged the clouds and innuendo surrounding her illegal backroom termination," Sciarra said.

The lawsuit, which was filed on Sept. 15 in Essex County Superior Court, names Baraka and the city as defendants. The complaint indicates certain paragraphs were redacted and the issues would be addressed in subsequent legal filings.

Brown was hired as the city's corporation counsel when Baraka took office in July 2014, and she was terminated in February. She previously served as the Passaic County Clerk, a judge in the Passaic and Paterson municipal courts and the Passaic County Adjuster.

Brown filed a lawsuit after being forced out of her job as a municipal judge in Passaic County in 2011. As part of a settlement agreement, she was reinstated to the bench, according to a Paterson Press report.

In a statement about Brown's lawsuit against Baraka and Newark, city officials alluded to that litigation history and said she was terminated as corporation counsel after the mayor lost trust in her.

"It appears that the City of Newark is simply the latest municipality and former employer of Ms. Karen Brown to be sued," according to the statement.

"During her brief tenure as Corporation Counsel, Ms. Brown's actions caused the Mayor to lose trust in her advice, counsel and judgment, leading to her termination," the statement reads.

"Her actions as an attorney raise serious issues regarding her compliance with the high standards we expect of our public servants. The City will seek appropriate review by the relevant regulatory bodies.

"The City will answer her baseless, meritless and spurious allegations in its response to her lawsuit and will vigorously defend against this matter."

In response to the city's comments, Sciarra said: "The mayor lost trust because Ms. Brown's advice was to stop acting illegally. Another sad day for the people of Newark."

The lawsuit represents at least the third lawsuit filed against Baraka this year by former city officials challenging their terminations.

The other two lawsuits have been filed by Keith Isaac, the city's former emergency management coordinator, and Victor Emenuga, the former CEO of the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation.

Brown's lawsuit claims Baraka pressured her in December 2014 to approve a shared services agreement between Newark and Irvington for the services of a health officer.

Brown refused to do so, because someone else had signed the agreement in the section that required her signature as corporation counsel and since the agreement was based on false information that Newark was laying off employees, the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, a resolution approved by Irvington to authorize the agreement said it was necessary because both municipalities were laying off employees. But Brown said that claim about layoffs in Newark was false.

The lawsuit also alleges the mayor retaliated against Brown over her handling of tax abatement applications and an email involving city council members.

The lawsuit states Baraka pressured Brown to sign off on about 17 tax abatement applications for approval at a Dec. 9, 2014 city council meeting. The applications were provided to the city's Law Department on Dec. 4 and 5, the lawsuit states.

The city's Director of Economic and Housing Development also threatened that Brown would suffer "repercussions" if the applications were not placed on the meeting agenda, the lawsuit states.

Brown said she wrote an email on Dec. 8 to the director – and blind copied several council members – to address his threat, the lawsuit states. She noted the short time frame and "objected to foregoing her legal obligations to thoroughly review these applications," the lawsuit states.

About two applications were ultimately placed on the meeting agenda, and approved by the council on the condition that they be approved by the state monitor overseeing Newark's finances, the lawsuit states.

At Baraka's weekly directors' staff meeting on Dec. 12, the mayor reprimanded Brown for refusing to approve the shared services agreement and for copying council members on her email, the lawsuit states.

"During this verbal reprimand, Mayor Baraka commanded that when he tells someone to do something that it is not a suggestion," the lawsuit states. "The Mayor further directed to Plaintiff and the rest of the attendees of the meeting that they have to do what he instructs because he is the one who makes the decisions."

As other examples of her whistle-blowing activities, the lawsuit points to issues involving Requests for Qualifications (RFQs) for municipal prosecutors and the mayor's placement of an intern in Brown's department.

Brown also claims Baraka's brother and chief of staff Amiri "Middy" Baraka pressured her in late January to reissue the RFQs, because an attorney had complained she was not awarded a contract for 2015. The brother indicated the attorney was "a big help to the Mayor's campaign," the lawsuit states.

Brown told him the attorney had nearly three weeks to respond, but her response did not comply with the requirements of the RFQ, the lawsuit states.

Soon after, Brown raised questions about a woman who had begun working as an intern in her department without her knowledge, the lawsuit states. In an email about the matter to city officials, Brown blind copied the state monitor, the lawsuit states.

Brown later had a meeting with Baraka, during which she was barred from having her cell phone with her, the lawsuit states.

In that meeting, the mayor said he placed the woman in Brown's department and he interrogated Brown "about why she was asking questions and copying the State Monitor," the lawsuit states.

Brown told him that, under a memorandum of understanding, the state is required to sign off on all personnel decisions, the lawsuit states.

But the mayor indicated "he did not have to comply with the terms of the MOU and that the State could not tell him who to hire and fire," the lawsuit states.

"He stated that he could simply give the State back their money," the lawsuit states. "Mayor Baraka said he did not trust Plaintiff because she had communicated with the State."

Brown claims city officials later retaliated against her for her whistle-blowing activities by indicating her recent hire of a paralegal specialist was not approved, even though she said all of the proper paperwork had been executed, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit states Brown reported to state officials about that matter as well as information on the request to reissue the RFQs for prosecutors, the shared services agreement and "copies of invitations to political fundraising events."

Brown was later accused of using her cell phone as a recording device in her meeting with the mayor, but she told officials she had brought the phone to the Law Department before the meeting, the lawsuit states.

But Baraka's brother and chief of staff said the mayor wanted her to resign, because "he did not trust" her, the lawsuit states.

"Chief of Staff Baraka asserted that this incident with the cellphone along with Plaintiff's communications with the State and incident copying the Council members were serious problems," the lawsuit states.

Brown refused to resign and her employment was ultimately terminated, the lawsuit states.

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