2 Elizabeth ‘whistle-blowers’ say school district is targeting workers who exposed lunch-subsidy abuses
Published: Friday, November 04, 2011, 6:30 AM Updated: Friday, November 04, 2011, 9:46 AM
ELIZABETH — Last month, the Elizabeth Board of Education hired a high-profile corporate security firm to ferret out school district employees who may have leaked sensitive information about abuses in the school lunch program.
Abuses that led to the arrest of the board’s own president.
Now in an unusual court filing, two district employees are seeking a restraining order to put a stop to the probe, which they say is a thinly veiled attempt to punish employees who helped shed light on wrongdoing.
The security firm, Renaissance Associates Ltd., a Morristown-based company headed by several former FBI agents and U.S. postal inspectors, was recently was paid $2.5 million to help track down the assets of Wall Street Ponzi scheme scam artist, Bernie Madoff. The Elizabeth board would not say how much the firm is being paid.
The employees, identified in the complaint only as “Whistleblower 1” and “Whistleblower 2,” say the investigation by the Elizabeth board is “an illegal effort to conceal wrongdoing” within the urban school district, which is largely subsidized by the state. The two individuals, in redacted, sworn statements as part of the filing, asked that their names not be revealed.
In papers submitted by attorney Daniel McCarthy of Cranford, the Elizabeth board was accused of authorizing the use of public school funds to silence and punish those who speak out against it.
“There could not be a more egregious abuse of public school funds,” he said.
Elizabeth school district officials denied the allegations.
“A quick review of that material by counsel for the district reveals the suit to be baseless and frivolous: wrong on the facts and wrong on the law, as well as politically motivated. It will be vigorously contested,” said attorney Bruce Rosen of Florham Park.
The security firm was retained by Elizabeth in the aftermath of a series of stories in The Star-Ledger reporting allegations of shakedowns for political donations, widespread patronage and spending excesses within the school district.
Those stories included the disclosure that the children of School Board President Marie L. Munn — as well as the kids of two other administrators — were receiving free or reduced-cost meals through the National School Lunch Program. The three appeared to have household incomes well above eligibility limits for the federally subsidized program, which is intended to benefit needy families.
Munn initially denied the allegations, but later paid the district back $2,682 to cover the cost of six years of free meals that she acknowledged her children were not entitled to receive. She was subsequently arrested, along with the spouses of the two administrators, on charges brought by the state attorney general of defrauding the lunch program.
Claiming there had been an “unauthorized invasion and illegal release of confidential information” regarding the lunch program, board members had charged that the records cited by The Star-Ledger were “hacked” from its computer system and vowed they would track down the source. They voted in October to retain Renaissance Associates.
The documents obtained by newspaper were supplied by sources familiar with the National School Lunch Program. Those sources requested anonymity because districts do not publicly disclose who is getting free or reduced-cost lunches. At the same time, several former employees say the documents were widely available with the district. They noted principals, guidance counselors, teachers and secretaries all had access to the lunch eligibility records, known as General Demographics Reports.
In the lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in Union County, the two unnamed individuals seeking to shut down the board’s investigation said the district has already begun trying to find out who spoke to the newspaper, directing members of its technology department to examine e-mails and phone records of employees.
Both said they had been aware that Munn and two others were receiving free or reduced-cost lunch in violation of government regulations and disclosed that to the county prosecutors office, the attorney general and to state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) — a political foe of the board.
The lawsuit also claimed that the contract with Renaissance itself was illegal because it was awarded without public bidding and said the probe was unlawful as well.
“The purpose of the investigation is to identify the source of disclosure of alleged fraud perpetration under the free lunch program. In other words, it is an investigation to uncover the identity of the anonymous plaintiff whistleblowers,” stated the complaint.
The two individuals sought a temporary restraining order against the board, several top administrators, as well as Renaissance Associates.
According to Rosen, the district has yet to be served with the lawsuit. But he said Elizabeth has taken no adverse employment action against anyone “for releasing confidential personal information from applications for the federally-funded school lunch program” to state authorities.
“Moreover, the district has not only has a right, but a fiduciary and statutory obligation to protect confidential employee information, and that is all it is doing — which is exactly why an outside vendor was retained, fully within the parameters of the state bidding law, in order to evaluate and protect the integrity of its computer systems,” he said.
John La Perla, a principal of Renaissance Associates, had no comment.
Renaissance Associates is only one of several consultants recently retained by the board in the wake of The Star-Ledger stories. The district also hired retired state Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein to conduct an investigation into charges by teachers and other employees who alleged that jobs and promotions in Elizabeth were tied to political contributions to school board members.
Four prominent criminal defense attorneys have also been retained by the board as well.
• School lunch investigation in Elizabeth leads to 3 arrests, including school board president
• Editorial: Elizabeth school official arrested in subsidized lunch scandal should step down
• Elizabeth Board of Ed. president arrested on state charges of lying to obtain free federally subsidized lunches for her kids
• Elizabeth school board president: I didn’t know my children were receiving free lunches
• 2 Elizabeth school district officials suspended in lunch program probe
• Elizabeth school lunch discounts come under scrutiny; N.J. officials call for investigation
• Elizabeth school officials’ kids don’t pay full meal costs, records show
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