Retaliation! Intimidation! Collusion!

Political pyrotechnics in West New York

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Commissioner Gabriel Rodriguez backed anonymous accusations that Mayor Felix Roque is working with a number of controversial figures.
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Board of Education President Adam Parkinson lamented the fact that teachers claimed to be pressured to electioneer or participate in politics.
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Commissioner Gabriel Rodriguez backed anonymous accusations that Mayor Felix Roque is working with a number of controversial figures.
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Board of Education President Adam Parkinson lamented the fact that teachers claimed to be pressured to electioneer or participate in politics.

With less than a month remaining before West New York’s municipal election on May 14, town hall infighting is at a fever pitch. In April, conflicts escalated among elected officials that impacted municipal employees. Political tension also gripped the most recent Board of Education meeting.

The month began with accusations that West New York Mayor Felix Roque was in collusion with a handful of controversial characters, and later allegations erupted that teachers were being intimidated by Roque’s opponents into participating in the election.

The Wildstein story

David Wildstein, of Bridgegate fame, wrote aNew Jersey Globe article which alleged that Mayor Felix Roque’s campaign is being run by Joseph Ferriero, a former Bergen County Democratic Organization chair infamous for a number of federal bribery convictions that landed him in prison for almost three years. Wildstein owns the Globe.

Ferriero was elected to the BCDO chair in 1998. He was credited with having flipped the county executive and a majority of Bergen County freeholders seats from Republican to Democrat within a few years. Ferriero faced a series of indictments during his time as chairman and was ultimately convicted on charges of bribery, kickback, and shakedown schemes, for which he served a 35-month sentence starting in 2009. He hasn’t publicly come out of the woodwork since serving that sentence.

Wildstein said in the Globe story that he’d confirmed Ferriero’s connection to Roque through 11 sources, but did not identify them. No sources have gone on record to confirm Ferriero’s alleged involvement with Roque’s mayoral run.

Other alleged alliances

Wildstein, in his Globe story, also accused Roque of having other controversial alliances. One of those was with Manny Diaz. Roque appointed him as chief of staff in 2017, with a $110,000 salary. Diaz was convicted of cocaine trafficking and sentenced to prison in 1999.

Roque said publicly that Diaz was a good fit for his role, despite having a criminal record. He emphasized that the conviction was more than 20 years old and that Diaz is a different person today.

Wildstein also alleged that Rene Abreu is involved in Roque’s campaign. Abreu is a real estate developer who was convicted of mortgage fraud in 2004, according to the New York Times, and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Abreu was a Democratic fundraiser and supporter of Rep. Albio Sires during his term as mayor of West New York.

No sources identified

Accusations that Ferriero is helping Roque came only from Wildstein’s anonymous tippers, but Roque’s opponents accepted Wildstein’s claim and ran with it.

“Ferriero was convicted of bribery and influence peddling while he was the Democratic Chairman of Bergen County, and now he’s here in West New York trying to help Mayor Roque fool residents into giving him another four years with an endless stream of lies and political stunts,” Commissioner Gabriel Rodriguez, Roque’s opponent, said. “Working with someone like that is absolutely unacceptable for our town.”

Rodriguez, head of the “New Beginnings” ticket, claimed that former West New York Commissioner Ruben Vargas was also working alongside Roque in his re-election bid.

Vargas resigned in 2015 from his commissioner seat, citing “personal reasons,” and was later sentenced to 10 months of house arrest and three years of probation after admitting that he skimmed money from a federal mortgage loan he was in default on.

Rodriguez said he had never verified with David Wildstein which sources had made the accusations against Roque. He said that he had contacted different sources who made the same accusations.

‘I don’t know him’

Roque denounced all Wildstein’s and Rodriguez’s claims of collusion with Ferriero, Abreu, and Vargas, saying that none of them were working with him in any capacity.

Roque told reporters that he had never met Ferriero, and began researching him after the Globe story was released. He said that Ferriero seemed intelligent, and he would like to meet him in the future.

“Apparently, he’s a partner with Scarinci and Hollenbeck [a regional business law firm], and according to what I’ve been reading, very talented,” Roque said. Roque publicly offered his cell phone number to Ferriero, saying  that he’d like to get in touch with him in the future.

Roque writes a letter

Shortly after the alleged Ferriero-Roque connection surfaced, Roque wrote a letter to the New Jersey attorney general’s office, which caused a stir among West New York Board of Education members.

Roque wrote to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, “Parents have informed me that their children’s teachers are being pressured to campaign on behalf of my opponents. I have been informed that over 200 teachers were forced to request personal days on Election Day to work the polls, which resulted in the superintendent closing the schools on Election Day.”

Roque told the press that “untenured workers are in fear of reprisals and losing their jobs” if they refuse to work for his opponent’s election campaign. “Others had been promised promotions or benefits” if they participated.

Roque’s opponent denied that anyone was pressuring teachers to participate in the election on their behalf, but Rodriguez said it would be a good idea to have the attorney general present in West New York on May 14.

“I could not think of a better idea than to have the attorney general here, because there’s no telling what Roque’s advisers are willing to do on Election Day,” Rodriguez said.

Did politics spill into the schools?

At an April 10 meeting, the West New York Board of Education addressed allegations of political patronage and intimidation in the district during the Teacher of the Year awards ceremony.

Board of Education President Adam Parkinson introduced an add-on resolution which prohibited all political activities on school premises, aside from staffing the voting booths on May 14.

“The West New York Board of Education appreciates and respects the rights of citizens of West New York to engage and participate in the election process,” the resolution read. “Whereas the West New York Board of Education respects the rights of employees to engage, or not engage, in accordance with applicable laws, rules, regulations and policies.”

Superintendent of Schools Clara Brito Herrera said that members of the teachers’ union at that night’s meeting were the first to come to her with allegations of political retaliation or coercion.

Trustee Maite Fernandez, who’s running for a commissioner seat on Roque’s ticket, and Trustee Ron Scheurle, who’s running as an independent candidate for commissioner, voted no on the resolution. Trustee Damarys Gonzalez abstained.

Deja vu all over again?

Lester Taylor, the Board of Education’s counsel, said that the resolution was redundant, based on identical protections afforded to teachers by state law.

“There apparently was a resolution earlier that set forth board policy,” Taylor said. “The law provides any employee with protection from harassment and retaliation if and when that employee reports what they reasonably believe to be illegal or unethical conduct. The law provides a course of action for that conduct to be reported.”

Teachers’ union members came out in force to complain of political pressures that interfered with their jobs, but the board cannot legally address personnel issues in public.

Parkinson expressed outrage that electoral conflicts were impacting the school district.

“This is at our Teacher of the Year meeting,” Parkinson said. “We’re a high-performing school district. We’re a future-ready school district. At the Teacher of the Year meeting, this is what we have to worry about. It’s sad. It’s a shame that we have to have the union come here and talk about the events that happened on Friday where teachers were harassed coming into work.”

For updates on this and more stories check hudsonreporter.com or follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mike Montemarano can be reached at mikem@hudsonreporter.com.