Court Bars N.J. Man From Suing District Again

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A grand jury in New Jersey has indicted a local school superintendent and his predecessor on charges of official misconduct and falsifying or tampering with public records.

The indictment, handed up this month, relates to state funds the Lyndhurst school district received for 1991-92.

Named in the indictment were Superintendent Joseph Abate Jr., who was the district's business administrator at the time of the alleged improprieties, and G. Donald Travisano, the former superintendent, who is now retired.

According to court documents, the two men knowingly submitted false financial information to state education officials with the intent of obtaining $1.5 million in state aid that Lyndhurst otherwise would have been ineligible to receive.

A state law-enforcement report issued last fall implicated several state legislators and members of their staffs for engaging in questionable political practices in connection with the incident. (See Education Week, Sept. 15, 1993.)

'Sacrificial Lambs'

None of the legislative officials were named in the indictment, however. Also spared were aides to former Gov. James J. Florio, several of whom had been implicated in the report.

Under the state constitution, lawmakers and their aides are immune from criminal prosecution for acts performed in connection with their official duties, according to George Kugler, the independent counsel who presented the case to the grand jury.

But a lawyer for Mr. Abate contended that his client and Mr. Travisano have been unfairly caught in a political crossfire.

"The educators will be the sacrificial lambs,'' said the lawyer, Robert Galantucci.

Mr. Galantucci also argued that officials cannot be granted immunity for the commission of criminal acts.

Moreover, Mr. Galantucci said, Mr. Abate had alerted state officials to the budget mistakes that led to the improper funding.

Other individuals may be named in a sealed presentment handed up to Superior Court Judge Samuel D. Lenox Jr. by the grand jury.

According to state officials, a presentment is a finding by a grand jury relating to public affairs. It may censure or condemn public officials.

The presentment will be kept secret until unsealed by the court.

Began With Computer Error

The report released last fall traced the origin of the affair to a computer error that provided Lyndhurst with an additional $1.7 million in state aid.

Upon discovery of the mistake, then-Commissioner of Education John Ellis ordered the district to return the funds. He recommended that Lyndhurst officials apply for a grant from a pool of money set up to ease districts through a change in the state school-finance system.

Lyndhurst was awarded a $1.5 million grant under that program. But state officials later charged that the district had used the money to offset a local property-tax increase, rather than for its stated purpose of funding education programs, and ordered that that money be reimbursed as well.

Through the efforts of Democratic lawmakers, the district subsequently received $1.5 million from a separate program run by the state community-affairs department. A civil lawsuit is pending to recoup that money.

During the investigation, Mr. Ellis charged that legislators and staff aides unduly pressured him to grant Lyndhurst money.

Some of the lawmakers acknowledged that they had lobbied the commissioner, but said they were innocent of any wrongdoing.

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