Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) speaking about marijuana legalization. (NJ Senate Democrats)
Sen. Nicholas Scutari, who was the subject of several investigations into his job as Linden’s prosecutor, is facing intensifying criticism, now from a group of progressive Democrat activists who want the state’s Joint Legislative Committee of Ethical Standards to probe Scutari’s actions.
One of the activists behind the ethics probe demand, Sue Altman, director of New Jersey Working Families Alliance, is also calling for Scutari to be removed as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Being removed from the Judiciary Committee is significant because right now, he’s the arbiter of who moves up in the judicial system, and that person should have a high ethical standard,” Altman said in an interview Thursday.
Altman and nine others filed the ethics complaint to John Wallace on June 29, slamming Scutari (D-Union) for allegedly holding a “no-show” job as the Linden municipal prosecutor. Wallace, a former New Jersey Supreme Court justice, heads the ethical standards committee.
“This accusation raises serious questions as to Senator Scutari’s ability to perform his taxpayer-funded employment and threatens to undermine the public’s trust in the Legislature,” the letter to the committee reads.
Scutari did not respond to requests for comment.
Scutari has been accused of “serial absenteeism” by the law firm Calcagni & Kanefsky, which the city of Linden hired to examine Scutari’s final years as the city’s prosecutor. The firm alleged he took 141 absences over two years and reported only five to superiors, improperly delegated half of his assigned court appearances in 2017 and 2018, and illegally accrued pension credits, according to a 59-page report completed in March.
After the activists’ June 29 request for an ethics complaint, the ethical standards committee asked them for documentation to back up their claims. They followed up with a copy of the Calcagni & Kanefsky report, which Altman said the city released after she filed an Open Public Record Act request.
“Unfortunately, we have such a culture of corruption and complicity in New Jersey that is fairly unsavory, and these things go on and on until a group of people says, ‘Hey, we need to stop this,'” said Altman.
The ethics committee’s next meeting is Sept. 21.
Investigations allege widespread malfeasance
Scutari was first elected to the state senate in 2003 and is also the chairman of the Union County Democratic Committee. He served as the Linden city prosecutor for 15 years until he was fired in January 2020.
He has denied the allegations, maintaining the termination and the allegations he had a “no-show” job are political in nature. Scutari and Linden Mayor Derek Armstead are foes. When Linden began airing their allegations about Scutari, he sued Armstead and members of the council for defamation. A settlement conference in the suit is scheduled for next month.
Linden has investigated Scutari twice, first using a consulting firm that alleged in 2019 he was paid $147,494 between 2014 and 2018 for 167 “unauthorized days” Scutari didn’t show up in municipal court. His many days missing court led to municipal hearings being routinely conducted without the presence of a prosecutor, the report alleged. He also often left the courthouse before the docket was up, according to the report.
Then the city hired Calcagni & Kanefsky, which issued its report in March 2021 alleging Scutari’s time off cost Linden nearly $200,000.
The report says Linden’s investigations were prompted by a municipal trial in which two cousins were convicted of disorderly persons offenses without a prosecutor present, due to Scutari’s absence. The city settled with the cousins in 2017 for $575,000.
“This is a criminal justice issue — folks’ first entry way to the criminal justice system is often through municipal court,” said Altman. “To think we had a prosecutor whose full attention wasn’t on the job at hand is extremely troubling.”
Hector Osegeura, a Hudson County activist who signed onto the ethics complaint, said New Jersey has a problem with “politicians that don’t think the ethics rules apply to them and they flout those rules.” Oseguera said he hopes to see Scutari held to the same standard as a citizen accused of abusing the system, but worries the matter will be swept under the rug.
“That’s not to say something like this is not worth doing because if we’re not the ones bringing up these sorts of dealings, no one would even know it’s happening, and that is much worse to me,” he said. “We need more people to find out what’s going on and fight it.”
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