Leader’s Words Don’t Tell the Real Story

The New York Times

It turns out this corporation, which the mayor championed and empowered, was pilfering from Newark.

The executive director, Linda Watkins-Brashear, who was a close ally of the mayor, acted like a bear come upon a honey pot. The state comptroller found her total compensation over seven years came to $1.98 million. Yet her salary during those years came to $1.16 million.

It seems she cut herself checks from the agency’s accounts. She also handed millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to friends and a former husband. She has denied wrongdoing.

Then there was the general counsel, Elnardo Webster, who is a close friend and former law partner of Mr. Booker. He made as much as $400,000 without a contract that anyone could find.

Mr. Booker is a splendid retailer of his narrative, but after a while there is a Barnum & Bailey quality to it. His maiden speech in the Senate went on for more than 30 minutes and ranged from the founding fathers to slavery to his own story to, oh yes, unemployment benefits, which was his ostensible point.

He talks, tweets and travels relentlessly. But what’s left behind is troubling. His former deputy mayor was convicted of extortion in 2011. The year before that, Mr. Booker laid off police officers. Arrests plummeted and, like a dying fire given oxygen, homicides flared.

Homicides in Newark jumped to 111 last year.

Brendan O’Flaherty is a Columbia University economist and a former finance director for Mr. Booker. “Would it have been better to go to Trenton and fight for money, or to go to Hollywood and fund-raise?” he asked. “He became a celebrity instead of a mayor.”

Newark’s problems, in fairness, run as deep as an underground river. This Sunday, I walked the impoverished South Ward, which runs east off a hilly ridge. “For Rent” signs were plaintive — first month free, no fee. On a Runyon Street corner, young men cast hard stares. I was an undercover cop, a drug customer or a wandering fool. I walked on before they figured that out.

Mr. Booker used to live near here. He took morning runs and distributed ice pops to children in the summer. He was like a sweet absentee landlord who might better have tended to the city’s bottom line.

That state audit, released on Feb. 19, found that Mr. Booker had awarded no-bid multimillion-dollar contracts to the watershed agency, which oversees 35,000 acres of upstate reservoirs.

Mr. Booker reacted with outrage.

“The malfeasance alleged in the comptroller’s report is infuriating,” he said in a statement. “For years, I led a public battle to reform Newark’s water system.”

That is an artful side step.

Mr. Booker acted — only after his local paper, The Star Ledger, exposed the problems. The mayor, the comptroller noted, had a “lead role” and yet “did not attend any meetings.”

Mr. Booker replied that he was too busy and that he designated his business administrator to attend in his place. The comptroller noted dryly that this administrator resigned in 2010; Mr. Booker never hired a replacement.

Mr. Booker won a surprisingly tight race for the United States Senate last autumn, to fill the seat of the late Frank R. Lautenberg. He will face another race this November.

On Bergen Avenue this Sunday, I asked Devon White, a friendly 14-year-old, about gunfire. He shook his head before my question was out. “I heard 10 shots while I was waiting for the bus after school,” he said. “I just ran and ran.”

He goes to a charter school, plays basketball and studies. His mother questions his every move and says she loves him whenever he goes out the door. “She worries something might happen and she wants me to have those words in my ear.”

Such attentive love was harder to come by from this city’s leaders.

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