ELIZABETH, NJ – An administrative law judge has ruled that four Board of Education members violated ethics rules when they voted to appoint a councilman to an assistant superintendent position.
In January 2016, Commissioners Maria Carvalho, Dan Nina, Stan Neron, and Jose Rodriguez voted to give the position of assistant superintendent to Frank Cuesta, a city councilman. Carvalho and Neron are both employed by the city. Nina is a city firefighter whose aunt is a security guard for the Board of Education. Rodriguez’s brother Eduardo is also employed by the city.
In his findings issued March 20, Judge Thomas Betancourt concluded that a perceived conflict of interest was created, further ruling that Cuesta’s qualifications for the job and the board members’ intentions were irrelevant. “I conclude that respondents Carvalho, Nina, and Neron had indirect financial involvement in voting for Mr. Cuesta’s appointment. They were employees of the City of Elizabeth and Mr. Cuesta was a sitting councilman. This indirect financial involvement could lead a reasonable member of the public to conclude it might reasonably be expected to impair their objectivity and independence of judgement.
“I further conclude that affirmative votes of Respondents Carvalho, Nina, Neron, and Rodriguez to appoint Mr. Cuesta could lead a reasonable member of the public to conclude that the votes were to secure unwarranted privileges, advantages or employment for themselves or others.”
The matter is now referred to the School Ethics Commission. If it concurs with the administrative law ruling, the Commission will recommend a penalty to the Commissioner of Education who will make the final decision.
In response, Board of Education spokesperson Pat Politano issued this statement, “Today’s action is an opinion and recommendation from an Administrative Law Judge and not a decision.The School District will argue before the School Ethics Commission that the recommendation misstates the relationship and responsibilities of an Elizabeth City Councilman. Mr. Cuesta does not make hiring decisions or salary decisions solely. He does not have supervisory authority over city employees. The school district maintains that all of its Board of Education members have acted responsibly and ethically and looks forward to making that case to the School Ethics Commission.”
The investigation was the result of two complaints filed with the School Ethics Commission by former board member Rafael Fajardo and former assistant secretary to the board Don Goncalves who was fired from this position the same night Cuesta was appointed.
Carvalho, Nina, and Neron were not available for comment, and Rodriguez declined.