The Office of the State Comptroller has released a blistering report of the  now-defunct Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation where its executive director cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.  

Pile of money (iStock)

The audit, Investigative Report: Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation, found that the agency's executive director, Linda Watkins-Brashear, wrote unauthorized payroll checks to herself, doled out no-bid contracts to close friends including an ex-husband and authorized a risky investment deal in an account that lost more than half a million dollars in public funds.

The OSC’s review of records from 2008 to 2011 revealed that Watkins-Brashear signed almost 70 payroll checks to herself, worth more than $200,000. Documentation or justification for those checks could not be provided by the agency.

In February 2007, Watkins-Brashear signed an agreement without board approval to expand an investment account which ended up losing almost $560,000, or about 65 percent of its total value.

“This is the public’s money and whether its high dollar amounts like we found here or in other places where you may have smaller amounts involved, it’s still the public’s money and the same care should be taken to safeguard it no matter how big the dollar amount is,” said Melissa Liebermann, comptroller chief of staff.

More than $330,000 in contracts were handed out by NWCDC to Watkins-Brashear’s ex-husband according the audit and in some cases the ex-husband was paid before doing any work, and the checks were made payable to the ex-husband, not his company.  Another contractor got paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for landscaping working.  The report found that the contractor had no prior landscaping experience.

“We think the lesson of this is that when a government entity like what happened here, the government unit still has a responsibility to monitor that vendor and ensure that the public’s money does not get wasted,” Liebermann said. “You can’t just write a check and hope for the best.”

The OSC investigation also raised questions about a NWCDC executive office reimbursement for $1,410 dinner that included lobster, margaritas and cognac. A non-employee also received $23,700 in reimbursement checks for running errands for Watkins-Brashear. According to the audit, the errands included cashing checks and getting newspapers.

“This report documents an egregious and yet preventable abuse of public funds that was allowed to continue unfettered for years because of poor oversight,” Liebermann said.

When questioned by OSC officials about what was uncovered in the probe, Watkins-Brashear invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The findings of the investigation are being referred to several state agencies including the Division of Criminal Justice.

“We hope that this is a cautionary tale for other government units in the state,” Liebermann said.

In March of 2013, a week after the OSC interviews uncovered the unauthorized check writing, the NWCDC voted to dissolve the agency, but that wasn’t the only vote taken. The board also authorized a more than $450,000 severance package for Watkins-Brashear despite evidence indicating she didn’t deserve the payout because she resigned, according to the audit.

It turns out Watkins-Brashear is no stranger to severance packages from the NWCDC. In 2006, she left the agency for three weeks, and although she continued to draw a paycheck, Watkins-Brashear also collected a $200,000 payout.