Essex College Administrator Is Placed on Leave Amid Investigation

The Essex County College administrator accused of causing problems at the troubled two-year school was placed on paid administrative leave on Tuesday by the trustees while an investigation is conducted into allegations of financial abuse.

The administrator, Joyce Harley, the vice president for administration and finance, was accused by the school’s president of buying a half-million-dollar copier without prior approval, taking improper leaves and paying her personal cellphone bill with school money. Anthony Munroe, the college president, made the accusations against Ms. Harley in a Sept. 6 letter to the board of trustees. She has denied any wrongdoing and last week countered, accusing Mr. Munroe of misusing relocation funds.

The investigation is the latest twist in years of turmoil at Essex County College, which began in 2010 with the 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 Newark college, which has about 15,000 mostly black and Hispanic students, has also been warned by the U.S. Department of Education for submitting late audits.

Mr. Munroe, president since June 1, and the college’s legal counsel, Joyce Toliver, said that the law firm Schwartz Simon Edelstein and Celso would focus only on the allegations against Ms. Harley.

Bibi Taylor, president of the board of trustees, declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of personnel and litigation matters.

Mr. Munroe said Ms. Harley’s leave would allow the school to address the issues pointed out by Middle States, which will send four evaluators to the campus in October. A loss of accreditation, though rare, would mean the college’s degrees are worthless.

Ms. Harley has also been named in multiple wrongful termination and whistle blower lawsuits. She has admitted to stopping the selection of a chief financial officer for the school, which would have addressed some of the criticisms of the Middle States, because she said the candidate was not qualified.

Ms. Harley said she believes she will be cleared.

“The most important thing I want is the success of the college,” she said.

Ms. Harley, who has been at the school for five years, was the Essex County administrator under the county executive, Joseph D. DiVincenzo Jr., a Democrat, who appoints the majority of the college’s board trustees. Mr. DiVincenzo recommended Ms. Harley for the college post and had previously backed her bids to lead the school.

Last week he said he believed that Ms. Harley, whom he called a “good friend,” should move on.

In a statement on Wednesday, Mr. DiVincenzo expressed support for Mr. Munroe and the board of trustees and said he has “confidence they can move Essex County College forward.”

In the meantime, Mr. Munroe said he is taking steps to help the college recover. He said the trustees approved the hiring of a deputy chief financial officer and a chief compliance officer. He also said the U.S. Department of Education has approved a corrective action plan.

Acceptance of the plan means that the college will not have restrictions placed on its ability to create new programs or on the ability of its students to receive federal aid. More than 60 percent of students rely on federal assistance to attend the college, said Mr. Munroe.

“This is a huge accomplishment in a short period of time in that we were able to avert significant sanctions,” Mr. Munroe said.

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