Eleven months after an inmate was killed at CEC's Delaney Hall, Governor Christie served as keynote speaker for its 2010 10th-anniversary celebration. He said, "This is where I need to be, because even as governor, you treasure the times when you can come and be someplace where the work is purely good."
Following the New York Times three-part series, countless other newspaper articles over the years, NJ Comptroller Boxer's report, an SCI report Gangs in Prisons, information from prisoner advocacy groups, and many Blue Jersey diaries, the need for a full independent investigation of Community Education Centers (CEC) is apparent. Its facilities are not places where "the work is purely good."
The problem as Charles Stile points out is that founder William Clancy, his family, and CEC since the early 1990's have donated over $600,000 to elected officials at the state and local level. That's a lot of dirt and many enriched hills. Essex County has proven particularly fertile ground for CEC, but Clancy's largesse has included governors of both parties and officials in counties where CEC operates or would like to operate. Particularly troubling has been Governor Christie's past participation as registered lobbyist for CEC, his frequent visits to the centers where he spews praises, his acceptance of donations, failure to address publicized problems, and his close relationship with CEC Senior Vice President William Palatucci.
In addition to the largesse, which constitutes conflicts of interest for those who might investigate CEC, the problem for any investigatory group is the sheer number of issues to be examined: "pay-to-play," public safety when inmates "walk away" from a facility, violence, rape, and drugs within the institutions, lack of quality counseling and education, lack of financial accountability and collusion with local authorities to obtain business.
With so many pockets of enriched hills and so many varieties of dirt, what group is independent enough with sufficient staff and skills to attack the problem?
Charles Mainor (D-Hudson), Chair of the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee, is one of two individuals who has called for legislative hearings. How independent can he be, however, as his county houses and receives monies for CEC's Talbot Hall in Kearny. In Part I of the NY Times series he was quoted as being asked for his estimate of how many people escaped from halfway houses in 2011. "I have heard of no more than three," he responded. According to state records, the number was 452. Another member of the committee Sean Kean (R-30) in the NY Times article appeared dismissive, saying about the escapes, "It's not really a problem. It's a cheaper way of doing business, so that's why it behooves us to use that option." In summary, this committee is not a promising group to investigate the matter.
Senator Barbara Buono is the other individual who has expressed concern, stating, "They should be held accountable for their failures." One of her key staffers said that with the current budget issues on the front burner, she has not yet developed a strategy on how to move forward. She is Vice Chair of the Senate Oversight Committee. Although she has received a combined $2,600 in donations in 2010 and 2011, she has shown the independence and fervor necessary to undertake such an investigation. She has not discussed the matter yet with Chair Robert Gordon (D-38), nor Paul Sarlo (D-36), neither of whom reside in a county where CEC operates. However, another committee member Teresa Ruiz (D-29) is a part of the Essex County Democratic machine which is probably the largest recipient of CEC largesse. With a small committee and an even smaller staff it would be difficult for this group to undertake such a far-ranging investigation.
Because of conflicts of interest and the broad scope necessary, a legislative investigation does not seem the best course. Individual committees, however, can review matters within their purview and promote legislation. There is currently a Senate bill (S927) sponsored by Jeff Van Drew (D-3) and Steven Sweeney (D-3) which would require the State Auditor to review Department of Corrections privatization contracts to determine whether privatization yields a reduction in costs and whether there was any malfeasance on the part of DOC with the contract. It has been reviewed by two committees, however, the identical Assembly bill (A1880) has seen no committee action. If the bill were to gain passage it would represent a step forward, with some dirt removed, but large mounds still remaining.
There are other more promising venues for investigation which will be discussed in Part II of this diary. There is a lot of dirt, a lot of hills and we need heavy duty equipment to level the land.