Questions arise over Essex County's distribution of aid to the needy

By David Giambusso/The Star-Ledger
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on October 06, 2013

Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, pictured in this file photo, denied there was anything inappropriate about the way aid was delivered to the needy.


NEWARK — For years, the East Orange Community Development Corp. has been a last line of defense for needy residents of Essex County.

The agency receives funding from such sources as the United Way, the state Department of Youth and Family Services and community development block grants. It distributes those dollars to people who need help paying the rent, a utility bill or an emergency expense. To qualify for help, each of the hundreds of clients that come through the agency doors every year has to prove they are in need.

At least that is the way it worked until 2009, when Essex County’s Division of Community Action — or DCA — set up a mysterious account to help distribute new federal and state money that was pouring into county coffers to help people in the wake of the financial crisis.


Suddenly, the standards changed and the money began to flow to those without demonstrated need for help. According to Connie Crawford, who had been running the program for 20 years, pressure to approve these grants came from the office of Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.

Among those receiving DCA money:

• A well-connected religious figure who first listed his family’s income at $144,999 and then lowered it to $72,499 on applications — still far above normal guidelines. Regardless, he received more than $1,100 to pay utility bills.

• At least 12 individuals without children who exceeded income cutoffs, earning between $40,000 and $60,000 a year. Together, the dozen received more than $37,000. Federal guidelines discourage aid to people who earn more than $35,000 and have no children.

• At least 13 people on public payrolls, including four employees of Essex County.

The money in this account came from three sources, each with a different standard of eligibility. One was earmarked for those earning less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level; a second was for those under 350 percent of poverty, and a third had no income guidelines but was intended to prevent homelessness.

Crawford herself had long restricted aid from her agency to those with documented need earning under 350 percent of poverty, or about $40,000 a year. In a series of interviews, Crawford said that county officials told her to disregard that standard and award the money to those they recommended, even those with flimsy or nonexistent documentation.

“It can be used whenever they choose, however they choose,” she said she was told.
Crawford said she and her employees often questioned clients referred by the county but were told, essentially, to mind their own business. Two agency employees confirmed Crawford’s story but requested anonymity, fearing retribution.

“We caught hell,” Crawford said, when resisting some applicants. “It was always the threat of: ‘This is coming from Joey D’s office.’ “

In a statement, DiVincenzo denied he exercised any influence over the awarding of aid.

“In this difficult economy, people from all socioeconomic backgrounds experience hardship and seek help from Essex County,” he said. “Any Essex resident who meets the program criteria and completes the required paperwork is eligible to receive assistance. These applications are reviewed by our staff and contracted vendors, without any recommendations from my office.”

The Essex County Department of Community Action, which set up the account in East Orange, is part of a larger Department of Citizen Services, run by Newark North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, a candidate for mayor.

Ramos, who recently stepped down from his county post to campaign full time, declined to comment, referring the newspaper to a county spokesman.

County officials did, however, say they looked into their practices after The Star-Ledger raised questions.

“We found no improprieties whatsoever,” said Essex Inspector General and former FBI agent Dominic Scaglione. “There’s a lot of needy people here that need this money, and from what we’ve been able to determine, they’ve done a great job disseminating it.”

Scaglione also denied there was ever any pressure from the county executive’s office. But he conceded that he did not ask DiVincenzo, Ramos, or Crawford about whether such influence was brought to bear.

“I went by what was written on the files,” he said.

Records show the clients who came to East Orange for help were referred by, among others, Ramos; L. Kathy McCarey, who worked for Ramos; Joyce Goldman, an employee of DiVincenzo’s office; and Sammy Gonzalez, the former freeholder and aide to Ramos who was forced to resign from public office after he was charged with voter fraud.

Proving a need

As clients enter the doors of the CDC, they are asked to present summonses, shut-off notices or foreclosure letters to prove their need as well as photo ID, Social Security cards, birth certificates of children, proof of income and a justifiable reason for needing aid.

The newspaper reviewed 109 of the agency’s files from 2009-11, and found 61 appeared legitimate: Money went to victims of domestic abuse, the ill and the recently laid-off.

But the remaining 48 files raised questions about the standards for awarding aid. On applications reviewed by the newspaper some people gave scant reasoning as to why they might qualify. Reasons ranged from needing money for funeral expenses to simply, “need to move.” The files also included conflicting information, excessive income levels and, in many cases, no income verification at all.

At least 13 public employees received aid, including four county employees. Of those, 10 of the applicants had conflicting information about their incomes or lacked documentation. The public employees listed incomes ranging from $17,000 a year for a part-time employee to $67,000 a year for a full-time post. Six of them had incomes greater than $40,000 a year.

Slightly less than half of those reviewed would not have passed the standard means test Crawford said she and her employees use for most cases. Together, the 48 applicants received just under $95,000 in federal money out of a total $180,000 distributed, records indicate.

Perhaps the most interesting request for aid came from a well-known figure in Essex County public life: the Rev. Ron Christian of the Christian Love Baptist Church.

Christian is a regular figure alongside some of the county’s most powerful politicians. He participated in Donald Payne Jr.’s victory party when Payne won the nomination in June 2012 to replace his father in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In September 2011, DiVincenzo gave Christian a symbolic “Key to Essex County.”
In 2011, DiVincenzo donated $1,000 in campaign money to Christian’s church.
And this summer, Christian stood beside Ramos, endorsing his run for mayor.

Income crossed out

Christian’s file, obtained by The Star-Ledger, shows he and his wife, Tami, listed their annual income as $144,999. The income was then crossed out and listed as $72,499.
Even the lower number is well above the normal guidelines used by the East Orange charity. But this grant came from the federal fund for homelessness prevention, which county officials say has no income limit.

Christian requested $1,174 to pay for late utility bills at his West Orange home.
Christian said his wife filled out the application and he was not involved.

“I never made the request,” Christian said, but added that his house was in foreclosure at the time he requested aid. “At the time, because of what we were going through, I think we qualified.”

Christian denied he received aid because of political connections.

“I pastor Joe D, along with thousands of other people,” he said, adding, “It wasn’t like Joe D gave us money.”

Christian’s file did not include any information regarding foreclosure.

In it, Crawford writes, “Their income can cover expenses and they do not have a shut-off notice, however Kathy (McCarey of the DCA) insisted using DCA (funds) to help with this particular client.”

Again, DiVincenzo said there was nothing untoward about Christian receiving aid.

“Our inspector general independently examined the application being questioned by this newspaper and conducted interviews with the people involved in the application process,” DiVincenzo said. “Their thorough investigation determined that the family met the program requirements and was eligible to receive assistance.”

Crawford said the incident with Christian was not isolated.

On another file, the husband of a couple earning $64,000 received $5,811 for funeral expenses. In the couple’s file, Crawford writes: “When asked for proof of his payment towards mother’s funeral, he stated he paid cash. Ms. McCarey said he didn’t need proof because these are through DCA funds.”

In an interview, Crawford said she was uncomfortable with the DCA’s influence from the start. The account set up by Ramos and other Essex County officials was shut down around 2011 when much of the federal money stopped flowing. Crawford said she was relieved.

Crawford said she thought the county’s actions were inappropriate, but aside from protesting there was little she could do.

“It makes you angry,” she said. “And then you just throw your hands up.”

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