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Split Screen of SDA/DOE: Nepotism In the Soprano State.

There’s been lots of chatter about news that the Governor’s Office — not Murphy necessarily but, as NJ Spotlight puts it, “top members of Gov. Phil Murphy’s staff” and “a far wider universe of individuals than had been previously disclosed” –knew about the nepotism at the Schools Development Authority by former CEO Lizette Delgado-Polanco. Before her appointment by Murphy as head of the agency that builds schools in Abbott districts, she was a union official and vice president of the Democratic State Committee.

Yet no one has connected this pattern of nepotism to hiring practices at the Department of the Education under former Commissioner Lamont Repollet. 

Let’s start with the SDA. According to the official report entitled “Report into the 2018 Investigation and Hiring Practices at the New Jersey Schools Development Authority,” once Delgado-Polanco arrived at the SDA in the summer of 2018, her HR person made a “Dead Wood” list of current staff who were to be fired. Some of them ended up staying or were reassigned but 15 long-term employees were let go that September. 

Let’s jump over to the DOE. There, 40 long-term employees were abruptly fired in July 2018. As I reported here,

According to my source, who wishes to remain anonymous, the expulsions were “without cause” and “purely political.”…While there was a little talk about downsizing, staff members were largely unworried about job security. Then on Thursday, July 19th, 40 staff members at the DOE received notice that the following day they would have 10-minute individual meetings with the Personnel Director. At those meetings they were handed letters, signed by Chief Administrative Officer Dodi Price, that said their positions were terminated “immediately.” Clear out your desks, turn in your laptops, and go home. The letters, as well as the process, said my source, were “callous” and “sloppily done.”

At the SDA, Delgado-Polanco, who made $225,000 per year, made 33 new hires. Some of those new staff members filled positions opened by the firings and some were entirely new positions created by Delgado-Polanco. Fourteen people were brought in “at salaries that top six figures and reach as high as $170,000. At least 10 of those top earners,” reports Advance Media, “either worked with Delgado-Polanco in the past or at companies represented by unions Delgado-Polanco worked for, or had other close ties to her.”

The official report says they “were family members, friends, and associates” of the CEO and gives some examples. One was the mother of Delgado-Polanco’s grandson and another was her second cousin. One was Cory LeDet, the husband of her close friend Kellie LeDet. Cory LeDet was hired to be Deputy Director of the SDA’s “Small, Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise” Department, a position that had never existed before. His previous experience was as a shop foreman for a car dealership. 

Now let’s jump back to the DOE. Sources told me about Repollet’s “book of resumes,” which was the resource used when new people were brought on. Many included in that book were fellow fraternity members from Phi Beta Sigma. Repollet sometimes relied on recommendations by his Chief of Staff. Her name is Kellie LeDet, Delgado-Polanco’s close friend.

A few examples: Delgado-Polanco’s husband,  Enohel Polanco-Gonzalez, was appointed DOE “Community Liaison” at a salary of $95,000 a year. His prior experience was as a former minor league baseball coach and infielder. Kellie LeDet’s nephew, David Brown Jr., became a Project Specialist in the DOE’s Office of Innovation. David’s sister Kiera, LeDet’s niece, was hired for an internship at the DOE. Kellie LeDet’s friend from Long Branch High School, Maris Henson, was given the job of Human Resources Manager.

Lizette Delgado-Polanco resigned from her job last April. Two sources told me her husband “magically disappeared” from the DOE about the same time.

Kellie LeDet is still Chief of Staff at the DOE.

Currently Gov. Murphy is getting heat based on his Office’s knowledge of nepotism at the SDA, although he’s denied having information himself. Spotlight says, “Patricia Arcila Cabrera — Delgado-Polanco’s former deputy chief of staff and best friend — told the commission that ‘she didn’t take any step without calling the governor’s office.'”

What did he know and when did he know it?

Jack Ciattarelli, a possible Republican contender in the next gubernatorial election, tweeted,

Let’s go back to the DOE. Did the Governor’s Office know about the parallel nepotism? I have no idea but, like, the SDA, it’s not implausible that high-ranking staff at his Office did. Here’s a hint: Murphy’s Deputy Chief of Staff is Deborah Cornavaca. She was previously a lobbyist for the NJEA-funded Better Choices for New Jersey group and, after that, NJEA’s Associate Director of Government Relations. Seems plausible that she would know what’s up at the DOE, given NJEA”s deep roots there.

The SDA’s future is unclear. Some want to eliminate the whole agency. At the DOE, though, all is copacetic. We have an Acting Commissioner, Kevin Dehmer, because Murphy hasn’t nominated a permanent replacement. (Word on the street is that no one wants the job.) The DOE’s guidance on school reopenings has been widely panned, with superintendents across the state decrying a lack of leadership. There appears to be little oversight of this enormously challenging year of school disruptions and learning loss.

The SDA is responsible for building and renovating facilities (although it ripped through $12 billion and is currently broke).

The DOE is in charge of our kids’ education. Maybe it’s time for another investigation.

Laura Waters

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