Power Cover Up


Rockaway Township school district mum on why it spent $14K to sweep for surveillance bugs

Published: Tuesday, November 08, 2011, 10:45 AM     Updated: Tuesday, November 08, 2011, 10:47 AM
Dan Goldberg/The Star-Ledger By Dan Goldberg/The Star-Ledger 
James-Verbist.JPGJim Pathe/The Star-LedgerRockaway Township school district Business Administrator James Verbist is shown in this file photo. Officials from the district have declined to explain why they spent more than $14,000 to sweep the district’s office for recording bugs this summer.

ROCKAWAY TOWNSHIP — The walls don’t have ears.

There is no surveillance equipment secretly taping conversations at the Rockaway Township school district office. No cameras peering onto board property.

That was determined by a detailed security sweep conducted by Fitzgerald Investigations LLC, which describes itself as a group of former state troopers who “specialize in security, investigations and surveillance services.”

The district paid $14,400 this summer for the sweep, according to receipts obtained through an Open Public Records request.

The school district cut two checks: the first was for $9,000 at the end of June, the second was for $5,400 at the end of July.

But school officials will not say why they thought anyone would be eavesdropping in their buildings.

“It’s not a subject that should be in the public domain,” said Michael Friedberger, school board president. “The board does not discuss security procedures for obvious reasons. The board felt the cost was appropriate.”

Fitzgerald Investigations, located in Sparta, conducted a “thorough physical and electronic examination,” according to a letter sent from Stephen Collins, an information security specialist with Fitzgerald, to James Verbist, the district’s business administrator.

At Verbist’s request, Fitzgerald checked multiple offices at 16 School Road in Hibernia, and the staff lounge at Copeland Middle School in Rockaway, according to the letter.

In addition, the letter stated, Fitzgerald searched for but did not find any cameras mounted on utility poles in the “office area of concern.”

“We found no surveillance devices of any kind in or near the area of concern,” the letter said. “This would include any audio, video, active, passive, wired or wireless recording or transmitting device. There was also no discovery that would indicate that a covert device was recently removed from any area of concern.”

The letter also notes Fitzgerald’s case file numbers for the work in the district, Those same numbers appear on payment vouchers signed by Verbist.

Tucker Kelley, who is running as an independent candidate for township council, said he found the spending perplexing.

“Jesse James is guarding the vault,” Kelley said. “You are trying to cut employees and staff to cut costs, but yet you have fifteen thousand dollars to spend on your own paranoia — to come up empty.”

Superintendent Gary Vitta did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

Verbist, at first, said he did not know anything about surveillance sweeps, and declined to discuss the school’s security plan. After being faxed a copy of the letter that was addressed to his office and detailed the sweep for surveillance equipment, Verbist did not respond to requests for comment.

Melissa Kobylinski, PTA president at the Katherine D. Malone School, said there were rumors about the sweep around town, but she did not believe parents were told why it was necessary.

“It’s fifteen thousand dollars of taxpayer money,” Kobylinski said. “I think parents who are discussing it want to know why.”

Thomas Fitzgerald, president of Fitzgerald Investigations, is a former district security employee, having been hired by the board in 2007, according to public records. His name is no longer on the district payroll.

Reached by phone, Fitzgerald declined to comment.

“I do not speak about clients,” he said.

“This is clearly someone abusing their power, using taxpayer dollars,” said Kelley, the town council candidate. “The paranoia is unbelievable.”

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