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Indictments Loom for New Jersey Officials

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Governor Thomas Kean of New Jersey is predicting that several officials in the state education department will soon be indicted as part of an investigation of grants awarded by the department's vocational-education division.

At a press conference this month, Mr. Kean acknowledged that department auditors and the state attorney general's office are both reviewing charges of conflict-of-interest in the vocational division.

Four officials in the division have already been fired for their alleged role in the scandal. "This is a criminal investigation. Indictments, I believe, are about to be issued," Mr. Kean said at the Jan. 5 press conference.

Saul Cooperman, the state's education commissioner, said last week that the director of the vocational division was among the officials fired as a result of the department's probe.

That investigation, he said, has uncovered widespread favoritism and other irregularities in the division's handling of about $800,000 in grant proposals from local school districts and from a vocational clearinghouse associated with Rutgers University.

"A number of activities were going on that we considered to be extremely inappropriate," Mr. Cooperman said. His office is cooperating with an independent probe launched by the state attorney general.

Officials of the U.S. Education Department have also spoken to him about the allegations, Mr. Cooperman said. An official in the department's office of the inspector general declined to comment on the affair.

The fired New Jersey officials are Assistant Commissioner Gordon Ascher, the division director; Gregory Buontempo, the vocational division's chief of orientation; Priscilla Walsh, head of exemplary programs; and Linda Pedrick, a program specialist with the division.

Attempts to reach Mr. Ascher were unsuccessful, despite repeated phone messages. Phone numbers for Mr. Buontempo, Ms. Walsh, and Ms. Pedrick could not be obtained.

Probe in Connecticut

A spokesman for the state attorney general confirmed last week that a grand jury in Trenton is examining the matter but has not handed down any indictments in the case. He declined to comment further.

Officials in Connecticut, meanwhile, are examining possible links between their own vocational operations and individuals and companies mentioned in connection with the New Jersey probes.

Governor Kean indicated that investigators in his state are also looking at links between vocational officials in New Jersey and those in several other states.

Mr. Cooperman and other education-department officials said their investigation centers on charges that top administrators in the vocational division improperly channeled pre-arranged grants to the Vocational Education Resource Center at Rutgers and to several local districts.

State officials alleged that the Rutgers center, known as verc, and the school districts did not submit requests for the questionable grants, but rather agreed to accept the funding at the urging of staff members in the vocational division, who wanted the money spent on contracts with certain companies.

The grant proposals in question, Mr. Cooperman alleged, were actually written by officials in the vocational division, who then approved those same funding requests in violation of both federal and state regulations.

The bulk of the funding involved was federal money allocated for competitive grants under the Carl Perkins Vocational Education Act, according to Assistant Commissioner Richard DiPatri.

"When it's a competitive [process,] that has to be a wholly clean relationship," Mr. DiPatri said. "And that's the problem."

According to Mr. DiPatri, investi8gators are examining charges that vocational officials required the grantees to use certain favored companies for the projects they funded.

The Associated Press quoted the Rutgers center's director, C. William Garner, as claiming that state vocational officials pressured him to accept the grants by threatening to cut funding for other programs if he refused to cooperate.

A call to Mr. Garner was referred to the Rutgers University press office, where a spokesman declined to comment on the allegation.

Selling 'Modelnetics'

So far, the names of three corporations have surfaced publicly in connection with the probes.

Department officials said that the three companies--Encore Management, R&R Evaluations, and Peggy Road Corporation--all received contracts from verc, local school districts, or both.

According to state officials, the bulk of the money went to Encore Management, a Delaware-based firm that offers a management- training program called "Modelnetics" to public-education agencies in several states.

The firm's president, Thomas Welch, is director of vocational education for the Delaware Department of Public Instruction.

According to Mr. DiPatri, verc, which acts as New Jersey's clearinghouse for vocational materials used by local districts, bought Modelnetics training from Encore Management at the behest of officials in the state vocational division.

After that initial contract, Mr. DiPatri said, verc then arranged for Encore Management to provide training services to several districts. Three other districts, he alleged, applied directly to the vocational division for Modelnetics funding, again at the behest of state officials.

Founded in 1981, Encore Management provides Modelnetics training under a licensing agreement with a California company, Main Event Management Inc. Main Event, in turn, is owned by Harold S. Hook, a Texas insurance executive.

According to a spokesman for Mr. Hook, the Modelnetics program uses schematic charts and other visual aids to teach basic administrative skills. Encore Management, he said, has been authorized by Mr. Hook to provide such training to public agencies in a number of Eastern states.

A spokesman for the Delaware Public Instruction Department said several Delaware agencies, including the department's vocational-education division, have purchased Modelnetics training directly from Mr. Hook's company. Encore Management, he said, only does business with agencies outside the state.

Connecticut Payments Barred

The Connecticut Education Department, which had a $56,000 contract with Encore Management to train state vocational officials, has suspended payment on that contract pending a review by department auditors, a spokesman said.

The spokesman said Connecticut auditors are also examining several other consulting contracts entered into by the vocational-education division, including a total of $25,000 in payments to Mr. Ascher, the former director of the New Jersey vocational division.

And New Jersey officials, in turn, said they are looking into claims4that several officials in the Connecticut division received consulting contracts from verc.

The Delaware spokesman said officials in that state have no evidence of wrongdoing by Mr. Welch stemming from his dual role as Encore's president and state vocational director.

"The gist of our position is that if people who are working here are doing things on their private time, we don't see this in itself as a conflict-of-interest," the spokesman said.

New Jersey officials, meanwhile, are also examining contracts awarded by school districts and verc to two other companies, R&R Evaluations and Peggy Road Corporation.

According to state officials, several districts used federal-grant funds to purchase consulting services from R&R Evaluations, and later followed the company's suggestion that they purchase training materials from Peggy Road.

R&R Evaluations, a Decatur, Ga., company, is owned by R. Richard Rentz, an educator who previously served on a state advisory panel on testing. Mr. Rentz was unavailable for comment.

Peggy Road Corporation is apparently a business name used by Joseph Limansky, a New Jersey consultant. Attempts to reach Mr. Limansky at his residence were unsuccessful.

Mr. Hagarty, the spokesman for the Delaware Department of Public Instruction, confirmed that both R&R Evaluations and Peggy Road Corporation received contracts, totaling about $20,000, from the Delaware department's vocational-education division.

The two companies, he said, were hired in 1986 to develop workbooks and video tapes to train vocational teachers and students. Delaware auditors, he said, have raised no questions about those contracts.

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