Kane In Your Corner: Belleville contract tampering investigation
Did an elected official in Essex County break state ethics laws by trying to get inside information to win a public contract? A Kane In Your Corner investigation finds there are serious questions about a 2013 voicemail left by Joe Longo - now a Belleville councilman, then a Board of Education trustee.
In a voicemail left on the personal cellphone of Belleville Town Manager Kevin Esposito, Longo, who managed a local printing company, can be heard asking about the status of a quote he submitted for a contract to print the town's recycling calendars. "I'm just wondering if it was anywhere in the ballpark, and if you could give me an idea of where it would need to be," Longo says. Since the contract had yet to be awarded and two other local companies were competing for the job, some say the message is serious cause for concern.
"It sounds to me like bid rigging," says Jeff Mattingly, a local business owner who has been a critic of Longo. "Asking 'where I need to be' is a direct conflict with the open bid process, and asking it of the town manager who opens these bids simply dumbfounds me," he says.
One of the state's leading experts on government ethics, political analyst Ingrid Reed, calls Longo's actions "a very good example of what not to do." Reed says since Longo was an elected official, she believes his actions are a violation of New Jersey's Local Government Ethics Law.
Longo did not return repeated phone calls from Kane In Your Corner. At a town meeting last week, he insisted the voicemail, then recently discovered, was no big deal. "I didn't ask for an inside rail on a contract," Longo said.
The town manager clearly believed Longo was asking for inside information. Memos obtained by Kane In Your Corner show Esposito even contacted police to request a criminal investigation. No criminal charges were filed. Sources say at one point, police asked Esposito to wear a wire, but the town manager declined to do so.
The Local Government Ethics Law, however, is not enforced by police or local prosecutors. It falls under the jurisdiction of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which is empowered to fine elected officials for ethics violations. The NJDCA would not say whether it is conducting an ethics investigation or whether it had received an ethics complaints about Longo.
This is not the first time News 12 New Jersey has reported on questionable conduct by Longo. Last month, Kane In Your Corner investigated a deal in which the printing company Longo managed sold 10,000 flash drives to the Belleville School District while he was a member of the Board of Education. At the time, the district's computers were so outdated that the flash drives could not even be used.
Last year, Kane In Your Corner investigated a multimillion-dollar security and technology contract that Longo spearheaded between the school district and Clarity Technologies. That contract raised eyebrows because Belleville was in dire financial straits at the time, and Clarity Technologies hired Longo's son. The state later appointed a financial monitor to oversee Belleville Schools, who immediately terminated the contract. The school district is now suing Clarity Technologies for fraud and breach of contract; the company is countersuing.