Essex County officials fire back amid calls for federal probe into charity fund

By James Queally/The Star-Ledger
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on October 07, 2013

NEWARK — A Newark councilman called for a federal probe today into allegations an Essex County agency steered federal stimulus money to people who didn’t qualify for aid, but county officials fired back, saying the woman who made the accusations is now denying she ever did so.

Councilman Ras Baraka’s demand for an investigation followed a Sunday Star-Ledger story which quoted the director of the East Orange Community Development Corporation alleging county officials instructed her to dispense federal aid to people who made too much money to qualify.

The story also quoted two anonymous employees who confirmed her account and cited dozens of applications for aid which raised questions about the agency’s standards.

In separate interviews with the paper, director Connie Crawford said aides to Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. told her to disregard the rules she normally used to decide which applicants were deserving.

But Essex County Inspector General Dominic Scaglione released a statement today claiming Crawford has "denied denied making the statements attributed to her" in the Sunday Star-Ledger.

He said his office has repeatedly reviewed the allegations and found no wrongdoing. Crawford declined comment today, saying she would speak only after consulting an attorney.

"After the publication of the recent article," the Scaglione statement said, "My office once again looked into the Ledger’s allegations concerning the East Orange Community Development Corporation because I believed the allegations contained therein were completely contrary to my earlier investigation."

"At that time," he added. "The EOCDC Executive Director denied making the statements attributed to her by the Star-Ledger reporter."

Scaglione responded on behalf of the county, not DiVincenzo, because he conducted the investigation, officials said.

In its Sunday story, the Star-Ledger reported that a review of records showed the charitable agency’s standards for distributing aid were often ignored. Out of 109 applications for aid filed between 2009 and 2011, the newspaper found 48 filings where applicants were awarded money even if they failed to verify their annual income or offered little evidence of their need for funds.

"We caught hell," Crawford said in the Sunday story when she discussed trying to turn down questionable applicants. "It was always the threat of: ‘This is coming from Joey D’s office.’"

Baraka, one of four candidates vying to replace Newark Mayor Cory Booker next year, did’t mention DiVincenzo or any other county officials by name when he called on the U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman to investigate the agency.

"We’re not accusing anyone specifically of anything irregular or illegal," he said. "But I do know that something improper is going on and it warrants a closer look."

Baraka also said he was dubious about the internal investigation launched by Essex County’s Inspector General, and said the outside probe would eliminate any potential conflicts of interest.

"If you don’t look thoroughly you’re not gonna find much, and I think that this warrants someone outside who is not entangled in the process of the employer, employee relationship," he said.

The U.S. Attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment because its press office is closed during the government shutdown.

The Star-Ledger conducted two on-the-record interviews with Crawford at a location outside of her office, according to Managing Editor David Tucker. During those interviews, Tucker said, Crawford detailed her experience with the county officials. The interviews lasted two hours and one hour, respectively.

The newspaper later obtained over 100 applications for aid in order to corroborate Crawford’s claims. After reviewing thousands of pages of documents the newspaper found some files on grants that were awarded were miissing documents, some applications contained conflicting income reports and scant reasoning for aid requests.

On some of the files, Crawford noted that clients did not appear to be in need of aid but she said she was instructed by county officials to hand it out anyway.

In a follow up statement late today, Scaglione said that Crawford has denied any pressure from the county and denied all statements attributed to her by the newspaper. Scaglione said he began his internal probe in July.

"She denied any pressure from the county and today (Monday) denied all statements attributed to her in (Sunday’s) article," he said in a statement.

The allegations have also ensnared Newark councilman Anibal Ramos, one of Baraka’s chief rivals in the 2014 mayoral race. Crawford’s agency fell under the county’s Department of Citizen Services, which was run by Ramos until he stepped down in recent months to campaign full time.

Ramos’ chief campaign spokesman, Bruno Tedeschi, said today that the councilman did not wield any political influence over applications. Tedeschi also said Ramos contacted the county’s inspector general as soon as he was informed of the allegations by Crawford, and dismissed Baraka’s call for action as a political play.

It’s surprising Ras Baraka is already out of ideas this early in the campaign that he is now resorting to these desperate tactics for attention," Tedeschi said.

Baraka’s spokesman, Frank Baraffs, said the councilman is simply trying to separate fact from fiction amidst allegations of serious misconduct.

"It is against the law to take federal funds intended to help desperate people in emergencies and put it in the pockets of county workers and others with political connections," he said. "It is also despicable."

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commented 2013-12-30 11:20:59 -0800
Thank you