ROSELAND, NJ — Nearly a year after Roseland Councilman Richard Leonard was accused of using his position on the governing body to trade a vote for a favor, the councilman was arrested on Tuesday and charged with conspiracy to commit official misconduct.
Leonard was absent from the public council meeting on Tuesday evening, and has since been contacted for comment, but did not respond prior to the publication of this report.
“Speaking for myself, I think everybody wants to put everything behind us, but these investigations sometimes take 14-16 months to materialize, so it’s just catching up now from what happened last year,” said Councilman Thomas Tsilionis. “I think this year everybody’s trying to put everything behind us and move forward, but you can’t erase what happened last year and that’s just catching up. Nobody on the governing body is out to get Richard right now, but unfortunately last year a door was opened that can’t be closed.”
According to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, Leonard is accused of conspiring to vote in favor of a redevelopment plan for property near his own in exchange for a right-of-way for his property.
Tsilionis explained that the property in question for redevelopment was Fairchilds Market on Eagle Rock Avenue, which has a parking lot that connects to the parking lot of Leonard’s business, Arcadia Realtors. The two property owners had previously shared a plowing contract, according to Tsilionis, until Fairchilds Market proposed a plan to knock down a building and build an extension to the parking lot.
After abstaining from the vote multiple times, Leonard voted against the redevelopment despite the borough attorney’s insistence that he should not be voting due to the conflict of interest, Tsilionis said.
“We heard about a threat [he made to Fairchilds], then he shows up at a meeting and votes ‘no’ on the project being built and then makes a threat that he will continue to vote ‘no’ until [Fairchilds] agrees to plow his driveway at their cost,” said Tsilionis. “That might sound silly at first glance, but a plowing contract for a 15-year period is worth up to $60,000. The question that was asked to Fairchilds by the prosecutors was, if this wasn’t a councilman and he didn’t make a threat, would he have gotten this agreement? And they said no—they felt that they were shaken down.”
About five weeks following this incident, Leonard released group texts from his colleagues to local media, which published the information and caused controversy over the racially charged jokes exchanged between Tsilionis and Councilman David Jacobs. At the time, both Tsilionis and Jacobs announced their intent to resign, but have since rescinded this plan.
Tsilionis said on Tuesday that he still believes Leonard’s actions were in retaliation to his accusations that Leonard was corrupt in his dealings on the council and had a clear conflict of interest when voting on the redevelopment item. He made this belief public at the time, in addition to the fact that council members had also recently refused to accept Leonard’s bid to be council president.
Shortly thereafter, Tsilionis said an investigation began through the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and that council members, the borough attorney and others involved confirmed Leonard’s threat to continue voting despite the conflict.
“Time went by, almost a year, like nothing happened,” said Tsilionis. “Then three months ago, the prosecutor’s office started to knock on everybody’s door again, they went to Fairchilds and got a complete story out of them, and they were investigating him for a long period of time until I just heard that he was arrested earlier today.”
At this time, no information has been released regarding Leonard’s unexpired seat on the council and whether the councilman is expected to resign. Should he resign, the Republican councilman’s seat will be left open for the November election in addition to three others, including the mayor and two councilmen.
Al Barlas, Essex County Republican Chairman and Mary Comito, Roseland Republican Municipal Chair, responded with this statement:
“It is disheartening to learn that an elected official is accused of misusing their office. While we respect the idea of being presumed innocent until proven guilty, we believe it would be in the best interests of Roseland and the public’s trust in their elected officials if Councilman Rich Leonard resigns to concentrate on his legal issues.”
The Roseland Democratic Committee released the following statement regarding his arrest.
“Our justice system considers every person to be innocent until proven guilty. However, this incident and the recent events involving other council members illustrate the need for new, fresh leadership that will bring honesty, integrity and openness to the Roseland government. That's why we are so proud to be supporting dynamic candidates on the Line A Democratic ticket."
Under the state's Official Misconduct law, only a public servant can be guilty of misconduct in office. An official misconduct charge is considered only when the public servant's action is coupled with a purpose to obtain a benefit for himself or another or a purpose to deprive another of a benefit, according to the New Jersey Legal Guide.