School lunch investigation in Elizabeth leads to 3 arrests, including school board president
Published: Tuesday, September 20, 2011, 7:20 AM Updated: Tuesday, September 20, 2011, 3:29 PM
ELIZABETH — The president of the Elizabeth Board of Education and the spouses of two other school officials were arrested yesterday on charges of cheating the federal school lunch program to get free or reduced-cost meals for their children — in one case for six years.
The state Attorney General’s office, which filed the criminal complaints, said all three deliberately misstated their incomes to qualify for the program, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $7,000.
Though the amount seems small, it has a ripple effect beyond its actual numbers. State and federal aid for each Jersey school district is calculated in part based on the number of families who participate in the lunch program, officials said. So, a meal that costs a few dollars a day can bring thousands dollars in aid for the school.
Arrested were Marie L. Munn, 46, the president of the Elizabeth Board of Education; Angela Lucio 35, the ex-wife of school principal Carlos Lucio; and Peter W. Abitanto, 42, the husband of Marlene Abitanto, the district’s supervisor of custodians.
The three were charged with third-degree theft by deception and third-degree tampering with public records or information. If found guilty, they each face up to five years in prison, officials said.
The arrests came less than a month after The Star-Ledger disclosed that Munn and others were all receiving meals for their kids through the National School Lunch Program — despite salaries far exceeding federal income-eligibility limits set by the federal government.
Attorney General Paula Dow called yesterday’s allegations “deeply troubling.” She said the three were accused of taking money from a program “intended to ensure that disadvantaged children get the nutritious lunches that they need” to thrive in school.
“We will not tolerate this type of abuse of a publicly funded assistance program by school district insiders,” she said.
News of the arrests was first reported on nj.com, The Star-Ledger’s news and information site.
Elizabeth school officials would not address questions as to whether Munn would remain on the board. Her arrest does not disqualify her from serving.
“The district is aware of the actions taken by the state of Jersey this morning. Our school district continues to cooperate fully with their investigation into the federal nutrition program and the families who participate,” stated board spokesman Donald Goncalves.
Stephen J. Taylor, who heads the state’s division of Criminal Justice, said those arrested allegedly exploited the school lunch program by lying about their family incomes.
According to investigators, Munn misstated her weekly income and omitted her husband’s salary completely, qualifying her children for free lunches worth $3,946 over a six-year period.
Last week, Munn disclosed that she repaid the district $2,682 — an amount calculated by the board to cover the cost of the free meals her two children had received. She also admitted she had filled out the applications for the lunch program without including her husband’s salary.
According to her most recent financial disclosure statement, her husband is employed by the New York Times. He is also the owner and head coach of a semi-pro football team.
Munn — who is employed as a human resources administrator for a New Jersey nonprofit organization and does not qualify for the program —said she had been unaware her kids had been receiving free lunches until she had been contacted by a reporter. She blamed the oversight on misunderstandings and financial complications.
An attorney for Munn had no immediate comment.
Following The Star-Ledger story, Elizabeth school board officials separately suspended both Carlos Lucio and Marlene Abitanto. Both placed the blame for the fraudulent applications on their respective spouses, who they said submitted the forms without their knowledge. Neither of the school officials were named in the criminal complaints filed yesterday.
Peter Abitanto was accused of falsifying salary information that led to his daughter receiving $2,169 in free lunches. His wife makes $73,350 as supervisor of custodians for the Elizabeth school district.
According to a school board official, Abitanto, who remains under suspension, has also asked to repay the program.
A person answering the door at their home yesterday afternoon said neither was available for comment.
Angela Lucio, who works as a court clerk for the city of Elizabeth, was charged with falsified applications for her children between 2008 and 2011, She allegedly received reduced cost lunches worth $899. Her former husband is Carlos Lucio, the principal of School 27 in Elizabeth, who makes $103,163 a year. The two were divorced in July of this year.
The board last week lifted Lucio’s suspension. His attorney, Joseph Bell, said Lucio was “deeply saddened by the current turn of event” and was convinced his former wife will be vindicated.
“It appears to be just a mistake or misunderstanding at the time of the completion of the application,” said Bell.
The National School Lunch Program provides state and federal reimbursements to give free or reduced-cost breakfast and lunch to children who meet income-eligibility requirements. State and federal officials, however, say there is scant auditing to determine if those receiving benefits are eligible.
State agriculture department officials said the Elizabeth district properly processed the applications of all three, based on the information that had been provided.
“The New Jersey Department of Agriculture does not approve of anyone misrepresenting their eligibility for the free and reduced price meal program,” a spokeswoman said yesterday. “Our job is to make sure school districts understand the USDA regulations in processing applications properly.”
The board last week said they will now cross-check payroll information against the applications of all employees seeking free or low-cost meals for their kids, after allegations of abuses in the school lunch program.
Gov. Chris Christie was asked about the arrests at a town hall meeting in Union yesterday afternoon. He repeated a frequent response when asked about possible criminal persecution: that he hated politicians talking about his office when he was U.S. Attorney so now he doesn’t discuss the cases being pursued by the Attorney General’s Office.
“It is not my position to be judging that as governor,” Christie said.
Star-Ledger staff writer Ginger Gibson contributed to this report.
• 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
• N.J. senator calls for investigation into Elizabeth school district’s free lunch program
• Elizabeth school officials’ kids don’t pay full meal costs, records show
© 2011 NJ.com. All rights reserved.