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State seizes records from N.J. town after mayor alleges construction official bilked developers

NJ.com logo NJ.com 9/24/2021 Anthony G. Attrino, nj.com
Qing Dynasty flag is displayed at Bellville Town Hall. Belleville had one of the first Chinese communities on the East Coast when 75 Chinese workers were brought from California to work at a laundry factory.March 20, 2019 © Patti Sapone/NJ Advance Media Qing Dynasty flag is displayed at Bellville Town Hall. Belleville had one of the first Chinese communities on the East Coast when 75 Chinese workers were brought from California to work at a laundry factory.March 20, 2019

State investigators raided Belleville Town Hall in Essex County on Monday, just days after the mayor alleged during a public hearing that the town’s construction official improperly withdrew thousands of dollars from an account set aside for developers.

Mayor Michael Melham told NJ Advance Media he discovered earlier this year that Construction Official Frank DeLorenzo Jr. billed the developers $200 to $750 each time he attended a meeting outside of regular work hours.

“Mr. DeLorenzo is accused of typing up his own invoices for arbitrary dollar amounts and taking money from our developer escrow account for attending meetings,” Melham said. “The problem is, Mr. DeLorenzo is already paid via stipend to attend the very same meetings.”

DeLorenzo, 60, did not immediately respond to a phone message and email sent to his office seeking comment on the allegations. His attorney, Christopher Errante of Lyndhurst, said DeLorenzo has worked for the township for decades, has a spotless record and would never do anything illegal.

“I think everybody should not rush to judgment until all of the facts are heard because it would be manifestly unfair to Mr. DeLorenzo,” Errante said in a statement. “I think we all need to wait until all the results (of the investigation) are in.”

DeLorenzo, who has worked for Belleville since 1981, is paid an annual salary of about $156,000 plus a $17,292 stipend for attending meetings, including the planning board and sub-committees, according to public records.

“The stipend he has specifically states that he’s being paid extra compensation because he attends meetings after hours and it specifically outlines the meetings he’s attending,” Melham said.

“Yet, he regularly created his own invoices and withdrew money from this specific account that’s not really monitored,” Melham said.

Melham said the escrow account contains money deposited by developers who have applied for construction projects within the township. The account does not contain taxpayer money and is not watched as carefully as other accounts, the mayor said.

“It’s a bank account that is not monitored by our auditors. I became interested in this account back in January because I just had a strange feeling,” Melham said. “I wanted to see who was receiving compensation (and) I was able to gather enough information to see what was actually happening.”

Melham provided NJ Advance Media with copies of invoices showing that DeLorenzo billed for attending meetings eight times in the past six months, submitting invoices totaling $2,350.

One invoice, for $750, is for “professional services rendered for the planning board special meeting on Monday, March 8” to address a Newark developer who applied to build a large apartment building with ground-floor commercial spaces.

“The town manager is doing an investigation right now to find out how much money (DeLorenzo) withdrew, but there’s tens of thousands of dollars that go into that account if not hundreds of thousands.”

Melham said investigators from the New Jersey State Police, acting on behalf of the state attorney general’s office, came to the municipal building with a subpoena on Monday.

The mayor said he could not provide NJ Advance Media with a copy of the subpoena. However, in an OPRA response to Melham on Monday, Township Clerk Kelly Cavanagh acknowledges she received a subpoena from the attorney general’s office but declined to release the document.

A spokesman from the Attorney General’s office on Thursday said he could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. Belleville Township Manager Anthony Iacono also declined to comment.

Melham, however, said a directive attached to the subpoena allows him to confirm the document was served but prohibits him or other township officials from commenting on what the investigators were looking for.

DeLorenzo had been served with a Rice Notice and told his employment would be discussed at a closed meeting. But DeLorenzo wanted a public hearing on the matter, which was held last week, Melham said.

“This is a pretty big deal, the fact that we had a public hearing (and) within six days after that public hearing, state police were inside town hall on behalf of the attorney general’s office,” Melham said.

Melham said DeLorenzo as of Wednesday remains on the job. But Melham said he plans to ask the township manager to suspend the construction official.

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Anthony G. Attrino may be reached at tattrino@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @TonyAttrino. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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