New Jersey mayor at center of racism scandal charged with public corruption
A.G. Platkin calls for firing of Clark police chief, calling him ‘unfit to serve’
Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso is accused of using public resources, including town employees, for his private landscaping business.
The state Attorney General’s Office accused a Republican mayor in Union County Monday of abusing his office by using public resources to operate his private landscaping business — actions the state says investigators uncovered while they were probing allegations of racism within the town’s police department.
Attorney General Matthew Platkin announced the charges against Clark’s longtime mayor, Sal Bonaccorso, during a press conference where Platkin also released a scathing 43-page report alleging police brass of violating the department’s regulations and criticizing Bonaccorso and town police officials for making “disturbing” racist comments caught on secret recordings.
“There is a social contract that imposes an expectation that officials in positions of governmental and law enforcement leadership will do the right thing, act not in self-interest but in service to the greater good, and treat all people with respect and dignity as equals,” Platkin said. “These are not naive ideals or lofty ambitions but rather the bare minimum expectations communities should have in their leaders. The leaders in the Clark Police Department, and the township more generally, failed to keep up their end of that bargain.”
Platkin’s investigation stems from allegations dating to 2020, when the town agreed to pay $400,000 to settle a lawsuit with a police lieutenant to avoid the release of the secret recordings of Bonaccorso and Police Chief Pedro Matos using racist and misogynistic language.
The long-awaited report says there is no evidence of criminal misconduct stemming from the racism investigation, but officials recommended terminations for two police officials anyway, including Matos. Platkin said he does not have the authority to fire them.
That investigation exposed the mayor’s alleged wrongdoing, state investigators say. While acting as mayor, Bonaccorso, 63, used municipal resources by storing records related to his landscaping business, Bonaccorso & Son, in the mayor’s office and using township devices like computers and fax machines for the private business, state officials said. He also directed township employees to perform work for the business, according to Platkin.
Platkin’s office also alleges Bonaccorso improperly removed hundreds of underground storage tanks in nearly two dozen towns starting in 2017. It claims not only that Bonaccorso did not have the necessary permits to perform this work, but that he also fraudulently used an engineer’s name and license number — and forged a signature on permit applications — without that engineer’s knowledge.
Platkin’s office also alleges Bonaccorso misrepresented to the towns where he formed this work that the engineer was the on-site supervisor.
Plus, after Bonaccorso learned of the state’s investigation, he told a witness to provide false information to state investigators, according to the complaint.
Bonaccorso is charged with official misconduct, records tampering, witness tampering, falsifying records, and forgery. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. His attorney did not respond to comment.
Bonaccorso apologized for the racist comments heard in the secret recordings but resisted calls to step down. He was last reelected in 2020 and his term expires next year.
The Clark Police Department has remained under the control of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office and Platkin’s office since July 2020. Platkin said both agencies took “painstaking care to thoroughly investigate all aspects of this case.”
The report recommends two men, Matos and Sgt. Joseph Teston, be terminated. They have both been on paid leave since the inception of the investigation.
“Our findings render them unfit to serve as law enforcement, and I’m calling for their immediate termination,” Platkin said.
State investigators claim Matos failed to conduct an internal affairs investigation, did not self-report allegations of misconduct, and violated standards of conduct related to the derogatory comments caught on the recordings. Platkin also said Matos lied to investigators during internal affairs proceedings.
Investigators obtained a recording of Matos using a common racial epithet with a subordinate. The report calls his comment “reprehensible” made worse by the “disturbing context” — he was referring to school children from Plainfield who had claimed they were victims of a hate crime. Matos knew at the time that the children reasonably believed that a hate crime had occurred, the report says.
The recordings were first published by NJ Advance Media, which revealed the town’s $400,000 settlement. The report does not recommend any charges related to the settlement, saying town officials who agreed to it can reasonably argue they were following the advice of their attorney when they agreed to the deal.
Monday’s report also alleges that while on paid leave, Teston was arrested at a sporting event in New York for striking a stranger in the head with a glass bottle. The report doesn’t state the charge, which was eventually dropped, but says it would have been a charge of aggravated assault in New Jersey. His actions “demonstrate a troubling level of poor judgment and frankly, a lack of respect for human life,” the report states.
The report touches on allegations that Clark police improperly pull over Black drivers more than white motorists. The Division on Civil Rights, which is within the Attorney General’s Office, will review preliminary data revealing the stark racial disparities in traffic stops in the town. The report found that 44% of people arrested during traffic stops in Clark were Black. Ninety-three percent of the town’s residents are white.
Platkin noted township officials could face additional civil investigations. The state Office of Attorney Ethics, the state Comptroller’s Office, and the Division of Pension and Benefits will continue investigating aspects of the case.
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