Newark accused of 'Gestapo-like tactics' after locking official out of office

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on February 22, 2016

NEWARK – The head of one of the Newark's most important economic development arms is on his way out, and some officials are less than pleased about his unceremonious sendoff.

On Thursday, directors for the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation approved an agreement between president and CEO Otis Rolley and the city that effectively ended Rolley's tenure after less than two years.

Negotiations for his exit came after members of Mayor Ras Baraka's administration learned that he had approved $6,125 in bonuses for 26 CEDC employees without consulting the board, failed to hand over financial reports and had been granted a living stipend and severance package without their knowledge. While not technically a public entity, the CEDC is funded by and largely overseen by the city.

While the board initially issued a statement describing the split as amicable, emails obtained by NJ Advance Media paint a less rosy picture.

In a message to the 7-member body on Friday, Rolley said he returned from a meeting that afternoon to find the locks from his office changed, denying him "the opportunity to vacate my office discretely and with dignity."

Rolley also questioned whether the city, which leases its Mulberry Street office to the CEDC, had the legal ability to make the change without notice.

In a subsequent email, CEDC Chairwoman Dr. Joyce Harley, said she was outraged by what she called "Gestapo like tactics" by the city.

"Thanks to the absolute disregard for protocol, common decency, and the wishes of this Board, the credibility and the excellent reputation of our Corporation and the City it serves has been damaged," she said.

"There is no excuse for what happened (Friday)."

The city defended its actions, saying Rolley had already been replaced by new interim president Scott Blow and could not be allowed access to privileged information inside the office. While Rolley will remain technically employed by the CEDC for 90 days, he is expected to work only when needed to assist with the transition, according to officials

"When an employee leaves under a cloud, it is standard procedure to change locks, especially if there are no additional keys," said Baye Adofo-Wilson, the city's deputy mayor for housing and economic development.

Wilson added that CFO Kevin Seawright, who was hired shortly after Rolley's arrival, also refused to hand over a key to his office and provide access to financial records. Seawright's is set to vacate his position on Monday.

West Ward Councilman Joe McCallum, one of two council members appointed to the CEDC board, claims Rolley became a victim of a larger play for power by Baraka's administration.

"He's very competent. We don't want his name muddied around behind some political nonsense....(The bonuses) are one of the pretenses they used to fire him," he said.

"These guys don't even know what's going on over there, they just know there's some sort of money, so they just want to put their little paws over there."

In a statement, Baraka's administration called his comments "unfortunate", and said it was only attempting to ensure proper protocols were followed. It cited the high-profile scandal still plaguing another quasi-governmental agency, the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation, which was derailed by a multi-million dollar kickback scheme.

"He may or may not have been aware of the fact that there are certain actions that are impermissible without consideration of the full board or of a quorum," it said. "Either way, there is a problem with both perception and practice."

Officials declined to discuss the exact terms of Rolley's agreement with the city, citing a confidentiality clause.

A former Baltimore mayoral candidate, he was selected by Mayor Ras Baraka's administration to run the then-Brick City Development Corporation in August 2014. That agency was eventually dissolved after a report uncovered significant issues with its loan program, but was re-launched under a new name three months later.

In an interview last week, Rolley defended his work assisting businesses and developments around the city, as well as the actions questioned by the city.

"There was never anything that was illegal or extra-legal," he said. "I'm proud of what we accomplished. I think my record speaks for itself."

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