SCI report finds Murphy’s office knew of SDA patronage spree
TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy’s office knew more about the hiring spree at the state Schools Development Authority under then-chief Lizette Delgado-Polanco than previously understood and gave its tacit approval to her actions, according to a State Commission of Investigation report issued Wednesday.
The report said Delgado-Polanco, a former union executive, was “a woefully inexperienced” chief executive officer whose nine months in charge of a multi-billion school construction agency “featured questionable administrative actions, suspect hires and outright managerial malfeasance.”
The SCI report details “a steady stream of frequent communication – via phone and text message” between Delgado-Polanco and Murphy’s then-chief of staff and others in the Governor’s Office.
“The commission found there was a wider universe of individuals than had previously been disclosed who were involved in her decisions as CEO,” said SCI communications director Kathy Hennessy Riley.
“Records and sworn testimony obtained by the commission revealed Delgado-Polanco kept high-ranking officials in the Governor’s Office informed of her administrative activity,” she said. “Now while those staff members did not authorize her every decision, their actions and in some cases inaction made it clear her overall activities as CEO were done with their tacit approval.”
All told, said the SCI, the SDA allocated more than $2.7 million in salaries for new employees during Delgado-Polanco’s tenure. Most had job duties outside the authority’s core mission, hired primarily to assist in a public relations campaign to secure funding for a new round of construction.
Murphy didn’t address two series of detailed questions about the report at his coronavirus briefing.
“I’ve got no comment on the SDA report. I haven’t read it. One of my colleagues just raised it as a headline,” Murphy said. “I will say this: Manny DaSilva’s running the SDA, and he’s doing an outstanding job, doing exactly what we need there. And I’m proud to call him a teammate.”
“I have nothing else to add — yes, no, maybe or otherwise — on SDA,” Murphy said later, “other than Manny DaSilva’s doing a fantastic job and I’m really satisfied with him and his team.”
Delgado-Polanco criticized the report in an affidavit responding to excerpts from it released by the SCI.
“It appears from even the minimal sections of the executive summary that the SCI chose to make available to me that this ‘investigation’ amounts to a ‘hit job’ on me, undertaken as a means to smear me and, from what I can gather, the governor and the Governor’s Office regarding my appointment,” Delgado-Polanco said.
The report notes that it uncovered 110 completed communications, includes texts and phone calls, from Aug. 1, 2018 to Dec. 21, 2018 between Delgado-Polanco and Pete Cammarano, Murphy’s former chief of staff. It says Cammarano was unable to provide details about her hiring, either because he couldn’t recall or Murphy’s office exercised executive privilege.
Cammarano said language in the report is “subjective or sensationalized” and appears focused more on media attention than exploring the facts. He said the focus on the 110 texts and phone calls is an “unwarranted, unfair and misleading” effort to have readers conclude there was a level of coordination.
“It is eminently reasonable to infer that many of these communications were unrelated to the subject matter of the commission’s investigation, and without the relevant facts the inclusion of this number again serves a sensationalistic narrative,” he said.
Riley said the report also found that the governing board of the SDA – which was created in 2017 to replace the scandal-ridden School Construction Corp. – doesn’t have enough oversight authority regarding the agency’s CEO and is not included in decision-making.
“The new creation of the SDA has been revealed to be just as problem-plagued as its predecessor,” Riley said.
“You have the Governor’s Office, which has really more and implied power over its activities than its governing board, which means it can be subject to politics,” she said. “And this breakdown in oversight is one of the problems.”
The report said the SCI will continue to investigate matters related to the SDA and will issue a final report with additional findings regarding its operational and construction activities and comprehensive recommendations to resolve the agency’s systemic problems.
Senate Republicans said the Legislative Select Oversight Committee should also continue its work looking at Murphy administration hiring practices.
“This investigation confirms what we have known for two years – the Murphy administration encouraged, approved, and then vehemently denied blatant nepotism and cronyism,” said Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic.
“The truth that has finally come to light through the SCI report confirms our worst suspicions of improper and unethical wrongdoings,” said Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.