Newark, NJ--TAPinto Newark filed a Denial of Access complaint Tuesday with the Government Records Council (GRC) after the City of Newark failed to fulfill an Open Public Records Act request regarding the city’s business dealings with consulting firm Elite Strategies LLC.
Elite Strategies is owned by CEO Kiburi Tucker, 43, and his business partner Linda Jumah, 35, who both pleaded guilty to tax evasion in November.
TAPinto Newark requested all contracts and agreements between the city and Elite Strategies spanning from January 2013 to November 2017 in a November 9, 2017 OPRA request filed with the city clerk's office.
The request was confirmed six days later on Nov. 15 and forwarded to the city's Departments of Administration and the Office of the Mayor, with an anticipated response date of Dec. 4, 2017.
Despite repeated attempts for information beyond this date and TAPinto Newark communicating its intention to file a complaint with the GRC, City of Newark OPRA Division Manager Ana Golinski did not respond until Dec. 19—40 days after TAPinto filed its initial request.
According to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5, custodians of records "should fulfill an OPRA request no later than seven business days after the request is received," with failure to respond to the requestor within seven business days deemed a denial of the request.
In addition, records custodians seeking extensions must request an extension from the requestor in writing within the statutorily-mandated seven business days and provide an anticipated deadline date upon which the records will be provided, according to the GRC.
"Our search resulted in no records found for any contract with Elite Strategies or Elite Strategies LLC authorized by the Municipal Council," Golinski stated in an email.
The response comes in direct conflict with a Nov. 25 report in nj.com, in which city spokesperson Frank Baraff said the City of Newark "had conducted a review" and found that Elite Strategies had provided services to the city three times between September 2014 and December 2015.
“Elite Strategies has not received work from the city of Newark since," Baraff said in the Nov. article. “It should also be noted that none of the work performed by Elite Strategies for the city of Newark is related in any way to the pleas entered in federal court by the Elite Strategies principals.”
Work performed by Elite Strategies as cited in the article includes $7,549 for logo, slogan and billboard design in Oct. 2014, $2,450 for billboard design and printing services in Jan. 2015 and $16,500 for outreach, logo, messaging, social media and printing services in Sept. 2015.
Baraff did not respond to a request for comment on the conflicting information.
Elite Strategies organized the 2015 Mayor's Ball, an annual $1,000-a-seat gala fundraiser held at Mr. Adams Steakhouse, as well as spearheading an email blast campaign for Team Baraka. The company has also issued statements on behalf of the mayor, including an April 2016 announcement of a deal between the city and UBER.
TAPinto Newark reported in November that Elite Strategies received $65,000 in consulting fees from Baraka's campaign committee.
Records show that between July 2015 and April 2017, the Baraka campaign shelled out three payments of $17,400, $19,000 and $28,000 to Elite Strategies.
Tucker, a longtime friend of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and the son of Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker and the late former Assemblyman and Newark City Councilman Donald Tucker, pleaded guilty in November in federal court to one count of tax evasion and one count of wire fraud as part of a plea agreement.
Between January 2012 and December 2015, Tucker admitted that he engaged in numerous acts of wire fraud in his capacity as the executive director of The Centre Inc., a non-profit childcare center located in Newark's South Ward.
Tucker admitted that he used the ATM card assigned to The Centre for what was described in court as taking out "a steady stream of funds" ostensibly for the benefit of the childcare center. Instead, Tucker used the card to pay for personal expenses, including more than $165,000 for costs generated from travel to Hawaii and Nevada, as well as gambling expenses.
Tucker also admitted to using more than $95,000 of the childcare center's funds for personal expenses, including costs generated by personal travel, home furnishings, art and gambling, as well as a personal cash advance at a casino in Atlantic City.
In total, Tucker defrauded The Centre of more than $332,000 between 2012 and 2015, according to court documents.
Tucker is the developer behind a $10 million dollar mixed-use apartment complex in the South Ward, with the city publicly stating that it would move ahead with the project despite the charges against Tucker.
Jumah pleaded guilty to intentionally under-reporting income that she received from Elite Strategies LLC in 2015 by filing a false federal personal income tax return.
Jumah admitted that after sharing proceeds with a business partner, she under-reported $121,941 in income for the 2015 tax year, resulting in a tax loss of $39,633.
TAPinto Newark also submitted an OPRA request to the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation (Newark CEDC) on Nov. 9 requesting all contracts and agreements between the agency and the city.
On Dec. 5, the NCEDC asked that the request be resubmitted and requested a 10-day extension on Dec. 8, although the agency claimed at the time that there were no existing contracts with Elite.
Subsequent inquiries to the NCEDC have gone unanswered as of January 10--more than two months after the initial request was made.
Baraka and Jumah appear to have a cozy relationship. Over Christmas, Jumah posted a picture of the two—a barefoot Jumah and Baraka in sneakers-- dressed in striped pajamas and sitting in front of a fire in a sparsely-furnished living room.
“The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt,” read the Facebook post. “Wishing you love, peace and happiness this season. Happy Holidays from us.”
Repeated requests for comments regarding the charges against both Tucker and Jumah, as well as the nature of Baraka’s relationship with Jumah, have gone unanswered by Baraff.
Jumah’s tax evasion charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, while Tucker faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, or twice the financial gain or loss of the victims of Tucker's activities.
Both Tucker and Jumah will be sentenced next month.