Ex-assemblyman faces mounting charges in alleged kickback scheme

Posted Sep 29, 2020

A former state Assemblyman from Essex County who has been indicted for defrauding the city of Orange while he was its acting business administrator was charged with more crimes Tuesday in a superseding indictment.

Former East Orange resident Willis Edwards III, 49, is now facing 31 crimes, which include conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, and taking kickbacks in connection with the business of Orange, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said in a release.

Edwards, who served one term in the Assembly as a Democrat in the early 2000s, was previously charged with 28 offenses, including conspiracy to defraud Orange, theft from a federally funded local government, wire fraud, bribery, conspiracy to commit mail fraud and tax fraud.

The original indictment centered on Edwards using his position as deputy business administrator from 2012 to 2015 -- a position to which multiple courts ruled he was unlawfully appointed by Mayor Dwayne Warren -- to reap tens of thousands of dollars in an extensive kickback scheme.

The superseding indictment stated that an associate of Edwards, Jeanmarie Zahore, the owner of JZ Nettech, a computer consulting business, was awarded a $350,000 emergency contract on Sept. 15, 2015 to install a computer networking system at the Orange municipal complex without competitive bidding. The complex housed the city’s municipal court and its police department.

At a council meeting where the award was made, city council members questioned the selection of JZ Nettech, but Edwards did not tell them that he had been communicating with Zahore for over a month before the award of the contract, Carpenito said.

From Sept. 18, 2015, to Nov. 10, 2015, Zahore received and deposited three checks which totaled $350,000 from the city for the project into his JZ Nettech bank account, authorities said.

“Beginning shortly after Orange made its first payment to Zahore, Edwards told Zahore on more than one occasion, in substance, that Edwards had taken care of Zahore and that Zahore should consider that and do something,” a statement from Carpenito read.

Between August and November that year, Edwards solicited and accepted cash payments of $20,000 from Zahore as a reward, federal prosecutors said. Both payments were listed as “Gift WE” in a spreadsheet kept by Zahore.

The superseding indictment also stated that Edwards willfully signed a 2015 federal tax return under penalty of perjury that did not report, among other items of income, the approximately $20,000 in kickbacks.

The federal indictment was the latest development in a federal investigation in Orange.

Edwards was previously named as one of a 12 people in the FBI’s search warrants of the Orange public library and City Hall in 2016 and 2017 related to the agency’s investigation of theft, fraud, extortion, and misuse of government funds. The former executive director of the library, Timur Davis, pleaded guilty earlier this year to making false statements to a federal agency in connection to the library’s Saturday literacy program.

Edwards, who now lives in Georgia, is the latest to be charged in connection with federal investigation.

Edwards also came under scrutiny earlier this year when NJ Advance Media reported that $21,000 was unaccounted from an election fund for his campaign for East Orange mayor more than 10 years ago in which Edwards ended up not running.

Edwards' attorney could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday night.

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published this page in News and Politics 2020-09-30 03:17:01 -0700