Murphy fires 30 New Jersey Schools Development Authority employees

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New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s administration fired 30 employees of a state authority that finances local school construction after an independent review found that his former appointee stacked it with friends, family and political contacts who were unqualified for their jobs.

All but three of those dismissed Tuesday from the Schools Development Authority had been hired by Lizette Delgado-Polanco, the former chief executive officer who resigned in April amid media scrutiny of her oversight. A review by an outside law firm faulted the agency for “patronage-type hires” that undermined its work.

The authority controls billions of dollars in construction spending in 31 of New Jersey’s poorest school districts. Created in 2007 to replace the scandal-plagued New Jersey Schools Construction Corp., the authority is seeking approval to sell more bonds. Delgado-Polanco, a former vice chairman of the Democratic party and union official hired eight months into Murphy’s tenure in August 2018, told investigators that she had created a department, and hired for it, to drum up lawmakers’ support to continue borrowing and building.

The 106-page report was prepared by Carmagnola & Ritardi, a Morristown law firm hired by the state Attorney General’s Office to review anonymous complaints. A second, separate investigation of alleged file tampering was conducted by DeCotiis, FitzPatrick, Cole & Giblin, a Teaneck law firm hired by the Law and Public Safety Department. In a 26-page report,

DeCotiis, FitzPatrick said it had found no “hard or compelling evidence” of such activity, but discovered sloppy record-keeping.

A third review, a 27-page audit, recommended hiring changes to which management has agreed. “The SDA has a track record of success delivering quality schools throughout New Jersey, so it’s important that we take time for self-reflection and demonstrate a willingness to improve,” Rob Nixon, chairman of the authority’s board, said in a statement.

Murphy, in a statement, said Nixon and Manny Da Silva, the interim chief executive, “have my full and unwavering support to make any management decisions they deem necessary based on the findings of these reports.”

Delgado-Polanco couldn’t be reached for comment. At a legislative hearing in April, before her resignation, she said the authority was doing an effective job, meeting with parents, church leaders, community groups and others that would benefit from rebuilt schools.

Delgado-Polanco, the Morristown firm’s report found, had fired longtime agency staffers and replaced them with family, friends and professional contacts. She was vice-chairwoman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee until she resigned in April and had been political director of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, which was among a wave of Murphy-supporting unions that were crucial to his election.

Delgado-Polanco lacked experience “in overhauling an organization in the manner that she did and she did not retain or involve any individuals or entities who had such experience,” the report found. The department itself drove a “substantial increase in the salary budget” and had no “significant positive impact on the reauthorization process.”

The review cited “numerous examples” of a failure to follow authority procedures, a lack of transparency, and unqualified employees who “were viewed as patronage or patronage-type hires that negatively impacted the authority and the working environment.”

At least five former authority employees sued the Murphy administration in July, claiming they had been illegally dismissed to make way for Delgado-Polanco’s hires.

Bloomberg News
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