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With revelation of racist recordings, prosecutors face scrutiny over their handling of investigation

NJ.com logo NJ.com 4/7/2022 Riley Yates, nj.com
The Rev. Charles Boyer says authorities had a moral duty not to sit on evidence that Clark’s leaders harbored racist views. Here, he is pictured in Piscataway in October 2020. © Patti Sapone/nj.com/TNS The Rev. Charles Boyer says authorities had a moral duty not to sit on evidence that Clark’s leaders harbored racist views. Here, he is pictured in Piscataway in October 2020.

Update: State takes over probe of N.J. town’s police, local government after racist recordings exposed

At the height of racial justice protests over the murder of George Floyd, Union County prosecutors seized control of Clark Township’s police department, citing “credible allegations of misconduct” by its leadership, and vowing to restore public trust.

But in announcing the takeover in July 2020, neither county prosecutors nor the state Attorney General’s Office said what they were investigating.

Now, criminal justice experts and community advocates are asking: Why?

The question follows revelations that Clark’s mayor, police chief and an internal affairs sergeant were secretly recorded using racial slurs. The township quietly paid a whistleblower and his attorney $400,000 in a settlement to conceal the allegations. And that Union County prosecutors long knew about those recordings, having taken control of the department six months after the settlement was inked.

The recordings remained a secret until last week when NJ Advance Media published some of them, which capture Mayor Sal Bonaccorso referring to Black people as the N-word and “spooks” and calling women in law enforcement “all [expletive] disasters.”

Some policing experts are now criticizing how authorities handled the matter, saying state and county prosecutors had a responsibility to inform the public, and move more swiftly in their investigation.

Hours after this story was published online, the Attorney General’s Office announced without explanation that it had taken control of the probe, wrestling it from county prosecutors.

That came amid intense scrutiny of the lack of action by authorities.

“I have some real questions and serious concerns about this investigation and why the mayor wasn’t identified,” said Brian Higgins, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and former Bergen County Police chief. He said that by keeping the allegations out of the public eye, prosecutors became culpable to some extent in efforts to cover up the scandal.

In the 20 months since the department’s takeover, Chief Pedro Matos and Sgt. Joseph Teston have continued to collect their paychecks while suspended with pay. Bonaccorso continues to head Clark’s government, having won a sixth term in November 2020.

“Even when they are investigating, there was enough evidence to say this gentleman should not be allowed to be mayor or the leader of that department,” Higgins said.

The Rev. Charles Boyer, a pastor and founder of the civil rights group Salvation and Social Justice, said authorities had a moral duty not to sit on evidence that Clark’s leaders harbored racist views.

“There’s absolutely an obligation for folks in authority over these policing agencies to alert the public when the (town and police) leaders are explicitly racist,” said Boyer, who grew up in nearby Plainfield and noted that Clark has long had a bad reputation in the Black community.

In a written statement Wednesday, the Attorney General’s Office explicitly acknowledged for the first time that the investigation extends beyond the police department and also covers the “township leadership.” The office said it takes seriously its responsibility to ensure policing isn’t done with bias, and will release a public report of the findings once the investigation is complete.

“While we endeavor to increase transparency in policing, we are bound by the system of rules and regulations governing court procedure and investigations more generally,” said the statement issued by spokesman Steven Barnes. “As soon as we are legally able to share additional information with the public, we will do so.”

The Union County Prosecutor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Wednesday’s statement hinted that the Attorney General’s Office was taking charge of the inquiry. Previously, statements about the investigation referred anyone with information to Union County prosecutors. On Wednesday, authorities instead directed tipsters to the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, a section of the Attorney General’s Office that investigates public corruption.

Another statement Thursday evening made that official.

“The Attorney General’s Office through the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability has assumed the investigation into the leadership of the Clark Police Department and Township,” Barnes wrote.

Bonaccorso apologized Tuesday for the racist and misogynist comments captured on the recordings,after previously denying to NJ Advance Media that he and others had used racial slurs.

“I am embarrassed and ashamed to have spoken that way about a race of people,” the Republican said in an online video.

Gov. Phil Murphy has called on the mayor to resign, as has former state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., a Republican running for Congress in the district.

In his video statement, Bonaccorso did not refer to the legal settlement that the township agreed to pay a whistleblower, police Lt. Antonio Manata, in January 2020 to keep the allegations out of the public eye. At a township council meeting Monday evening, Bonaccorso attributed the settlement to pressure from the township’s insurer, though a lawyer for Manata disputes that.

“No representative of any insurance company was present during any settlement negotiations,” the lawyer, Patrick Toscano Jr., said Thursday.

Under the agreement, the township paid Manata and Toscano $400,000, and Manata was allowed to remain on the payroll for more than two years without working, at an additional cost of $289,700 in salary alone. In exchange, Manata turned over the recordings to the township and agreed not to file a lawsuit.

Six months later, county prosecutors and the Attorney General’s Office announced the takeover of the police department.

Since then, Chief Matos has been paid $285,700 and counting in salary, and Sgt. Teston $217,200 and counting through March 15, township records show. A police captain whom Manata accused of retaliation, Vincent Concina, has also been on paid administrative leave and has earned $260,500. (None of the three have publicly commented.)

Prosecutors are often loath to tip their hands during ongoing investigations, and they operate under ethical dictates that seek to protect the innocent from being improperly exposed to public ridicule.

That can mean that even troubling accusations must be kept confidential until an investigation is complete, said Jamie Pukl-Werbel, a Seton Hall law professor and a former assistant prosecutor in Manhattan. She defended prosecutors’ handling of the Clark allegations, saying that by seizing control of the department and announcing an investigation into misconduct, they had done right by the public and their professional rules.

“It would be improper for the prosecutor’s office to comment on the specific allegations of police misconduct because the investigation is ongoing,” Pukl-Werbel said.

It is also unknown how expansive that investigation is and what directions it may have taken. Jeremy Abay, an adjunct professor at Rutgers Law School in Camden, represents whistleblowers in private practice. He said the probe might be looking into whether the township’s settlement represented an illegal use of public money.

It is against the law for public officials to use public funds for their benefit, Abay noted. He said that if the township entered the settlement to avoid political fallout against the mayor and other town officials, that could be a crime. At issue would be the town’s motive in agreeing to the payout, he said, and whether there was a legitimate explanation for it — for instance, a desire to avoid the cost of litigation.

If not, “it would take you potentially into the realm of criminal activity or conspiracy,” Abay said. “And the question would really come down to intent.”

Some experts in criminal justice have been critical of how long the investigation has dragged on.

“There’s a question of some kind of malfeasance here: Why has it taken two years?” said David Rudovsky, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and an expert on police misconduct. “Why haven’t they done something sooner?”

Former Perth Amboy Police Chief Roman McKeon, who retired last year, called the allegations “really bad” and also questioned why the probe hadn’t concluded.

“Wasn’t it true that until a few days ago this outrage was completely swept under the rug with the hope it would ‘go away?’” McKeon asked in an opinion piece he sent to NJ Advance Media. “If the justice system typically took this long for criminal matters to be resolved just imagine how long a homicide, robbery or drug case would take to see the scales of justice. Our justice system would be rendered useless.”

McKeon said rank-and-file officers face far greater scrutiny of their actions. He pointed to a firestorm of criticism that Perth Amboy fielded a year ago after officers confiscated bicycles from a group of largely Black and Latino teenagers, arresting one of them. The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office investigated the incident and concluded in October that police acted legally and showed no sign of racial discrimination during the encounter.

“So where is the accountability within ... Clark for clearly outrageous and offensive behavior by its so-called ‘leaders?’” McKeon asked.

Higgins, the John Jay professor, said that pressure builds on prosecutors to show they haven’t been sitting on the case with each passing day. When they release their report, he said, it had better be significant.

“If their report comes out and it really only contains what you have revealed already,” Higgins told NJ Advance Media, “the question would be, ‘What took you so long, and what were you waiting for?’”

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Riley Yates may be reached at ryates@njadvancemedia.com.

S.P. Sullivan may be reached at ssullivan@njadvancemedia.com.

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