Probe disrupts housing repairs
Fuqua family members thought they were getting a sweet deal when they received federal grants to rehabilitate their New Brunswick home. To them, it meant a new kitchen, a working bathroom, stairs that didn't threaten to crumble below their feet and a roof that wouldn't leak every time it rained. But a year after receiving $23,000 in grants, their Seaman Street home is still in disrepair. "It was a great program the government had for poor people to beautify their homes," said 45-year-old Alfonso Fuqua. "Now look what has happened because of crooks."
Probe disrupts housing repairs
New Brunswick owners find themselves in limbo
Monday, October 15, 2007
BY NAWAL QAROONIStar-Ledger Staff
Fuqua family members thought they were getting a sweet deal when they received federal grants to rehabilitate their New Brunswick home.
To them, it meant a new kitchen, a working bathroom, stairs that didn't threaten to crumble below their feet and a roof that wouldn't leak every time it rained. But a year after receiving $23,000 in grants, their Seaman Street home is still in disrepair.
"It was a great program the government had for poor people to beautify their homes," said 45-year-old Alfonso Fuqua. "Now look what has happened because of crooks."
The Fuquas are among the dozens of property owners affected by the now yearlong federal investigation into corruption at two federally funded housing programs in New Brunswick that were supposed to help less fortunate families rehabilitate their homes. Investigators have charged three city officials with taking kickbacks from contractors hired to do the work.
Roughly 30 homeowners approved for the rehabilitation projects and another dozen who already had work started on their homes are in limbo. City officials ordered all work halted until the federal probe unfolded and work has yet to resume.
Two of the three New Brunswick officials indicted have pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks between January 2004 and September 2006. In addition, four of the contractors have admitted to paying off the housing officials to win bids on projects and receive expedited payments for work they completed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Howe said the probe is ongoing, though he declined to discuss specifics.
Charges remain pending against William Walker, the former head of the city's neighborhood preservation program. He pleaded not guilty to a 54-count indictment last month and is awaiting trial. Walker is accused of taking $112,500 in bribes and receiving cut-rate renovations on his own home and a rental property in Camden from contractors he helped win bids.
In addition, Steven Scott, a former city housing inspector, was put on paid leave from his job in March when city officials received a subpoena indicating he was being targeted in the investigation. He resigned in June, but has not been charged by federal authorities.
New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill said the city has continued to cooperate with the probe, though federal investigators have not recently asked for additional information.
Richard Kaplan, a former city housing inspector, pleaded guilty in April to taking $30,000 to $70,000 in bribes and is expected to start serving a 30-month federal prison term on Oct. 22. Linda Carol Roach, a former supervisory clerk in the city's planning department, pleaded guilty in July to taking kickbacks to expedite payments to favored contractors. Roach is awaiting sentencing in December.
Four contractors also have admitted paying the bribes and have cooperated with federal investigators. Prakash George Karot and George Thomas, co-owners of TAJ Maintenance in Perth Amboy, pleaded guilty to paying $60,000 to win bids worth nearly $1 million. Joseph McNulty and Sam John, co-owners of Friendly Maintenance Group in New Brunswick, admitted they paid $3,000 a month to city officials for lenient inspections and $1.3 million contracts.
The contractors also told investigators they paid Shawn Maloney, the former head of the city's water utility, $1,500 to secure a $15,000 roof-repair project at the city's Bartlett Street firehouse. Maloney committed suicide in February the day after learning he was a target of the ongoing federal probe.
Cahill, the 17-year mayor of New Brunswick, said the investigation "serves as a reminder that you can never be too cautious to make aware those that are in employ of the city that we don't tolerate this behavior."
Though the two housing programs have been shelved during the investigation, Cahill said city Planning Director Glenn Patterson has developed a plan to reinstate the programs.
The Homeowner Affordable Rehabilitation Program and its sister HOME program could resume by next month, he said.
City attorney Bill Hamilton said the city's ethics code also has been reinforced.
"We've always had high ethical standards but now I think there's a greater standard of being more skeptical," said Hamilton, who has been the city attorney since 1986. "It maybe made some people stop and think about the city, but hopefully they realize it was the actions of a very few."
Ingrid Reed, policy analyst at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, said a level of trust has eroded. "It's impossible to say the city doesn't bear responsibility. You can say it was a bad bunch, but what does the city do to inject ethical standards in their employees? The public deserves to know."
For the Fuquas, rebuilding trust begins with rebuilding their home as promised. Their rehabilitation bid was won by Friendly Maintenance, Inc., whose owners have pleaded guilty to kickbacks.
"The people who did this should go to jail," said Fuqua, who has lived in the house for four decades with his family. "We were excited to have a chance to make this place look better. Now we're just stuck."
Nawal Qarooni be reached at
or (732) 404-8082.