At Troubled Essex College, Officials Point Fingers at Each Other

NEWARK — With the accreditation of Essex County College on the line, the school is slipping into deeper turmoil as two of its top administrators accuse each other of misusing funds.

Anthony Munroe, president of the college since June 1, wrote to the board of trustees on Sept. 6 asking that Joyce Harley, the vice president of administration and finance, be suspended and investigated for buying a half-million-dollar commercial copier without proper approval. The letter, which was obtained by The New York Times, also said Ms. Harley used school money to pay her personal cellphone bill and took improper leaves.

Ms. Harley denied the allegations and countered, accusing Mr. Munroe of misusing relocation funds to pay homeowner fees and his children’s tuition and to buy a television. Mr. Munroe also denied wrongdoing.

The accusations are the latest controversy in yearslong turmoil among the two-year school’s leadership since the 2010 resignation of its longtime president, A. Zachary Yamba. The continuing conflict has caused the Middle States Commission on Higher Education to warn that the college is in danger of losing its accreditation because it lacks financial controls, has a poor governance structure and conflict-of-interest rules, and struggles to retain students. The school has also been warned by the U.S. Department of Education for submitting late audits.

Essex County College, which has about 15,000 mostly black and Hispanic students, serves as a bridge to four-year institutions like Rutgers University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Evaluators from Middle States will arrive on the campus next month. A loss of accreditation, though rare, would mean the college’s degrees are worthless.

A group of clergy has accused Ms. Harley of causing the trouble at the school, which has had three presidents since 2010, and called for her resignation. The latest feuding between the school’s top two administrators is not helping matters, said the Rev. Ronald L. Slaughter, a spokesman for the group and the pastor of Saint James A.M.E. Church in Newark.

On Wednesday, Reverend Slaughter sent a letter to William Fitzpatrick, the acting United States attorney for New Jersey, requesting that he open an investigation into “inappropriate political interference” and financial malfeasance at the college. Mr. Fitzpatrick responded that his office would “evaluate whether there may be an identifiable federal offense.”

The county executive, Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., a Democrat, who appoints eight of the 11 members to the board of trustees and oversees the $15 million the county provides the college annually, has taken a hands-off approach to the turmoil.

“All I do is appoint the board. The board members have to run the school,” Mr. DiVincenzo said during a phone interview on Monday.

Now, Assemblywoman Mila M. Jasey, a Democrat and chairwoman of the Assembly’s higher education committee, State Senator Ronald L. Rice, a Democrat, and Rochelle R. Hendricks, the state secretary of higher education, have requested a meeting with Mr. DiVincenzo. But Mr. DiVincenzo asked Ms. Hendricks to meet with the college’s trustees and president first.

Ms. Hendricks said the state has little authority over colleges and universities — it cannot appoint a monitor or take over a college as it can with elementary and high schools. But she said she plans to meet with the board and the president, and that members of her staff would be present during the commission’s review. She has also asked the state comptroller to investigate allegations of financial malfeasance.

“I’ve watched two presidents pushed out, and now a third president hasn’t had a chance to get his sea legs and there’s an issue,” Ms. Hendricks said. “There has been consistent turmoil, but we are trying to get a handle on it.”

Brigid C. Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, said Mr. DiVincenzo’s response to the crisis goes against his reputation as a micromanager.

“He is known to have his hand in most aspects of government and politics in Essex County. To think he has taken a hands-off approach in this particular set of circumstances deserves scrutiny,” she said.

Ms. Harley, a former Essex County administrator, was referred by Mr. DiVincenzo for the vice president job and has previously received his backing to lead the college.

She is named in multiple lawsuits claiming wrongful termination and whistle-blower protection. She admitted stopping the selection of a chief financial officer for the school, which would have addressed some of the criticisms of the Middle States Commission regarding financial controls and governance, because she said believed the candidate was not qualified.

Ms. Harley addressed each of Mr. Munroe’s claims. She said she bought the copier on an emergency basis and the purchase was subsequently approved. And she said she was reimbursed $70 per month for her cellphone because she uses it for college business.

As for the improper leaves, Ms. Harley said she unknowingly used more time off than she was entitled to while she was battling cancer and has reimbursed the college.

“How low are you for being willing to attack someone for seeking the care that they need to survive,” said Karen Brown, a lawyer representing Ms. Harley.

While Mr. Munroe declined to discuss his letter to the board, calling it a personnel matter, he did address Ms. Harley’s accusations. Mr. Munroe acknowledged the expenses and said they were a proper use of relocation money.

Receipts show that Mr. Munroe used the relocation expenses to pay for $8,400 in homeowners fees in Chicago, $1,375 for his children’s tuition and more than $450 for a television and accessories. Mr. Munroe said the items were are a proper use of the relocation money.

His contract includes a $215,000 per year salary, $1,000 per month housing allowance and potential bonuses and cost-of-living increases. The contract says the $25,000 in relocation fees could be used to “reimburse the relocation costs, transitional housing expenses, closing costs and related moving expenses.”

Relocation expenses were “broadly defined as anything I had to do to get myself to New Jersey,” Mr. Munroe said, adding that his hiring was “really accelerated” because of the turmoil at the college.

Mr. DiVincenzo said both administrators’ allegations were “hearsay,” but should be investigated.

“If anyone has done anything wrong, action should be taken,” he said.

For the good of the college, Mr. DiVincenzo said, he believes that Ms. Harley, whom he called a “good friend,” should move on. But he said he does not have the authority to force her out. Ms. Harley said she has no intention of resigning.

“They wish I was involved. If I was involved that school would be the best school in the State of New Jersey,” Mr. DiVincenzo said of his critics.

“Everybody knows anything I touch turns to gold,” he added.

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