Corruption and waste exposed at NJ sewer agency, Christie demands full disclosure

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Long under fired for nepotism, inflated salaries and questionable payments to consultants, lobbyists and outside vendors,  Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners have been called out by Gov. Chris Christie to provide details of their family and friends on the agency’s payroll, before making good on a pledge to demand all seven resign.

Christie’s challenge came a day after The Star-Ledger published a report detailing abuses and corruption by the sewerage commission in which jobs were routinely given out based on an insider’s-lottery system, similar to the NFL draft. Internal records showed that a formal numbering system was kept, tracking the commissioner next in line to hand out desirable jobs, which in many instances, were given to family members, friends or those politically connected.

After the story appeared detailing some of the job assignments, Christie said, “My initial inclination would have been to demand resignations, but fairness would dictate allowing them seven days to explain themselves.”

The sewerage commission, the largest in the state, covers four counties in northern New Jersey and serves more than 1.5 million people. The agency employs 567 people, 85 of whom make over $100,000 per year.

Shortly after taking office, Christie took aim at the commission, saying it was one of the worst examples of government waste in New Jersey. The PVSC was often called a hotspot for nepotism and political cronyism.

Some of the hiring abuses uncovered through the Star-Ledger’s public records request were:

  • Commissioner Carl Czaplicki sponsored his wife in a 21st round draft in 2003. Vanessa Czaplicki was hired as a clerk at a salary of $47,664; she now earns $70, 676. His brother John also is employed at the agency making $90,000 per year.
  • Commissioner Frank Calendriello, who is also the mayor of Garfield, reported on financial disclose forms that four relatives work at the agency: two cousins, his cousin’s wife, and his brother-in-law.
  • Former commissioner Kenneth Pengitore, also mayor of Haledon, hired his son, daughter and daughter-in-law soon after he was seated on the commission. He is now the agency’s chief financial officer, making $163,869 per year, after being given the job by fellow commissioners.
  • The top-paid employee in the agency is Anthony Ardis, another former commissioner, who makes $220,443, and is given the use of a Ford Expidition SUV for his personal use.

“I think it would be very hard to justify hiring your wife and brother, or hiring commissioners to high-paid positions — whether it’s Mr. Ardis or Mr. Pengitore,” said Christie. “I can hardly see the justification for the salaries and cars for folks that are helping us handle sewage.”

Other abuses and questionable practices that have been noted in the past include out-of-state travel, paid holidays that exceed the number given to other state employees, and the use of highly-paid lobbyists.

Over the past two years, the PVSC paid lobbyists over $500,000 in consulting fees to represent the agency. Critics say that there is no need for the commission, which is part of the government itself, to hire representatives to lobby lawmakers.

The current executive director, Wayne J. Forrest, is a Christie appointee, who was given a mandate by the governor to begin putting the agency’s house in order. A former Somerset County prosecutor, Forrest is being paid $174,000, down from the $313,000 paid his predecessor, Bryan Christiansen, who was pressured into resigning last year by Christie.

Last week, the agency adopted a new budget that reduces spending for the next fiscal year by $3 million, to $161 million. Along with the reduced budget comes a zero-percent rate increase for customers, the first in many years.

Since Forrest’s appointment six months ago, he instituted a salary and wage freeze, and dumped rules that often allowed employees to get multiple raises in a single year. Forrest said, “We had a system where an employee might receive three pay raises in any given year.  That system has been abolished.”

The Star-Ledger

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