Political Firestorm Continues to Rage Over SDA Hirings and Firings

Embattled CEO of Schools Development Authority deals with continued charges of patronage, favoritism

People packed a 9 a.m. Trenton meeting of the Schools Development Authority — some to sing the praises of its embattled CEO Lizette Delgado-Polanco for bringing diversity to the agency.

“I’ll tell you, I am behind you 100 percent, my sister,” said former Trenton Councilman Manuel Sigura.

“We’re 100 percent supportive of Lizette and her team. We think that they’re doing an outstanding job,” said Camden resident Amir Khan.

Patronage scandal

But others came to condemn her. Delgado-Polanco sits uncomfortably at the center of a deepening patronage scandal, accused of hiring 38 people — many of them friends and relatives — after allegedly ordering more than two dozen career professionals fired from the SDA, including Sameer Shah.

“Lizette, if you really want to survive, we have nothing against you. But please step up. This is the time to step up and take some action,” said Shah. “We have also accused them of file tampering. Miss Jane Kelly is directly involved in file tampering of our personnel files.”

“You had everything to do with the unjustified terminations, which precipitated the binge nepotism,” said former SDA staffer David Barie.

Jane Kelly, the SDA’s vice president of governance, declined to talk to us on the record about the accusations. Shah told the SDA that glowing letters recommending that he be promoted had disappeared from his file. Delgado-Polanco refused to discuss that or any other allegation.

“I have no comment on any of that, sorry,” said Delgado-Polanco of the allegation.

Under investigation

“I don’t have any confirmation that that ever occurred, but again, these are things that are under investigation and I really can’t say a whole lot more about it,” said SDA board chair Robert Nixon.

The investigation over hiring practices continues on several levels, internally, in the governor’s office, and sources say, in other state agencies as well.

Delgado-Polanco has called the personnel changes a “restructuring” that she felt was needed to fulfill the agency’s mission. But it sparked a political firestorm. The Legislature’s joint oversight committee — now investigating hiring practices by the Murphy administration — may take up the issue. The governor’s office is reviewing a list of people hired by New Jersey’s 50 or so independent authorities and said Wednesday the SDA remains “subject to an ongoing review conducted by counsel.”

One woman who applied for an SDA job last summer complained Wednesday that nobody ever returned her calls.

Front door, back door

“I’m standing here at the front door, knocking on your door for my fair chance to be hired. There is a backdoor entry given to more than 35 people. I feel, I feel flabbergasted, actually,” said Manisha Mehta, who applied for a position with the SDA.

The SDA is conducting an internal audit of hiring and human resources, and Nixon said he expects information in a week or so.

“I cannot comment because they’re public employee issues that involve privacy of their employment. So it makes it very hard to engage somebody in a public setting about something I’m not permitted by law to discuss,” Nixon said. “If our audit comes up with concerns about how resumes or applications were published online, then the board’s going to take action on it.”

The controversy is unfolding as the SDA’s survival is threatened. It’s out of money, and some lawmakers have called for abolishing the agency that’s charged with building and repairing schools in disadvantaged districts.