Booker says he shouldn't be held responsible for Newark water agency corruption

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on December 03, 2015

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, shown here in a file photo, has filed a motion asking that allegations he failed to properly oversee the Newark Watershed Conservation Development Corporation be moved out of bankruptcy court.

 

NEWARK - U.S. Sen. Cory Booker has asked a federal judge to move claims he played a key role in the gross mismanagement of the now-defunct Newark Watershed Conservation Development Corporation out of bankruptcy court.

In the Nov. 25 filing, Booker's attorneys claim that the allegations he breached his fiduciary duty as chair of the agency's board of trustees are not covered under bankruptcy law, and should thus be withdrawn and moved to a federal district court.

The filing also denies any wrongdoing on his behalf, saying he acted in "good faith" while serving as chairman of the agency's board of trustees, and was never alerted to any malfeasance by lawyers or accountants hired to oversee its dealings.

"When serious evidence of wrongdoing at (NWCDC) emerged, (Booker) took immediate action to dissolve it and bring its operations under direct control of the City of Newark," it reads.

Booker also argues that he cannot be held personally liable for any wrongdoing at the agency because his position as chairman was an ex officio appointment granted to all mayors, and for which he received no direct compensation.

The freshman senator was one of 18 people named as defendants in a Nov. 6 lawsuit filed by government-appointed trustees for the NWCDC as part of its ongoing bankruptcy case. They allege that the group, which includes former executives, employees, contractors, accountants and trustees, is responsible for the mismanagement and lack of oversight that led to the agency's liquidation.

The complaint borrows generously from a 2014 state comptroller's report that accused Linda Watkins-Brashear, the agency's former executive director and a political ally of Booker, of gross mismanagement and widespread corruption.

The report alleges Watkins-Brashear received more than $600,000 in severance packages, used a checkbook from the agency to write herself $200,000 in unauthorized payouts, and awarded millions of dollars' worth of no-bid contracts to her ex-husband, close personal associates and agency employees.

It also chided Booker and members of his mayoral administration for failing to provide proper oversight, saying he did not attend a single board of trustees meeting despite his role as chairman.

Watkins-Brashear has not been criminally charged in relation to the alleged schemes, though at least two contractors accused of benefiting from them have pleaded guilty to conspiracy, tax evasion and other federal charges.

An attorney representing the trustees could not immediately be reached for comment.

The NWCDC had received millions of dollars each year to treat and deliver water to 500,000 customers in North Jersey and manage Newark's 35,000 acres of reservoirs, but was officially dissolved in March 2013.

In December 2014, a newly constituted board under the city's control voted to file for bankruptcy in an attempt to recover the assets allegedly stolen from the agency.

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