Investigation examines questionable hiring practices at New Jersey school construction agency

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A report on former New Jersey Schools Development Authority Chief Executive Officer Lizette Delgado-Polanco raises questions about hiring practices that gave unqualified employees six-figure salaries.

The State of New Jersey Commission on Investigation, which conducts investigations into alleged public corruption, also questions how much the Murphy administration knew about the hirings, which took place after Delgado-Polanco fired other staff members and brought in people she knew.

The report provides a “more comprehensive examination of the events that occurred during Delgado-Polanco’s tumultuous nine-month leadership of the SDA” that hasn’t been told despite in-depth news media reports and an inquiry conducted by a private law firm at the request of the Attorney General. That inquiry did not include interviews with members of the governor’s office who were responsible for overseeing the SDA, investigators said in the report.

The SDA was commissioned in 2007 to oversee school construction projects after the New Jersey Schools Construction Corporation was disbanded amid questions of government waste.

Delgado-Polanco was named to the post in August 2018 after a single interview with Gov. Phil Murphy’s chief of staff, according to her testimony to the SCI. She resigned nine months later, on April 26, 2019.

Even though Delgado-Polanco is no longer with the SDA, the report questions “if proper safeguards in place – including reforms adopted after the SDA’s recent internal audit – to ensure these types of managerial misdeeds do not occur again under another regime?”

Part of the report questions Delgado-Polanco’s qualification and the qualifications and salaries of the staff she hired, calling her “a woefully inexperienced CEO placed in charge of the multibillion-dollar Authority, and the individuals, policies and practices that were supposed to keep the politically connected appointee and the entity she oversaw in check”

Delgado-Polanco’s friend, Patricia Arcila Cabrera, was first hired as a “Director-Special Projects” and paid a $117,000 salary, according to the report. A month later Cabrera was promoted to Delgado-Polanco’s chief of staff and was paid $130,000.

The staff changes were completed without the knowledge of the SDA’s governing board. Board Chairman Robert Nixon began questioning hiring procedures in November 2018 after learning an ethics complaint was filed against Delgado-Polanco.

Delgado-Polanco and others said the hirings were discussed with Murphy’s then chief-of-staff, according to testimony from Delgado-Polanco’s former chief of staff, Al Alvarez.

“I would say Ms. Delgado-Polanco consulted the governor’s office at every step of the way in the entire reorganization process, so they were made aware of all the decisions that were being contemplated before they were actually executed,” according to a statement from Alvarez included in the report.

When asked about the report Wednesday, Murphy said he had no comment.

The report also questions other spending by Delgado-Polanco. Nixon would not approve the board’s budget when the communications budget went from $1,800 to $295,000 for what was deemed “media relations, social media, events, advertising and marketing.”

After Nixon’s complaints, the budget included only $100,000 for communications. And during Delgado-Polanco’s tenure, an additional $2.5 million in salaries were added.

Delgado-Polanco called the report a “hit job” and said, “Any investigation cannot lay the principle blame on me.”

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