It’s the afternoon of January 20, 2011, and I am in front of a microphone before the New Jersey State Assembly Tourism and Arts Committee in the New Jersey State House Annex.
The occasion is a public hearing on a bill that would prohibit “the Department of Environmental Protection, the state treasurer, and the State Capitol Joint Management Commission from taking any action that would result in the closure of the Petty’s Run archaeological excavation.” The 1730-era site is on the state house lawn (next to the Old Barracks) and is one of the only remaining examples of colonial manufacturing in the nation.
The night before the session I received an E-mail from a Trenton activist who said, “It’s late notice, but if you are around it might be worth stopping in and testifying in support of the bill.”
Since I have a history of working on both Trenton and state impact arts projects, served on the team that selected the designer for the state Capital Park, and knew that there was a budget for park-related projects that included Petty’s Run, I figured it was my duty to show up.
The decision to bury the site was linked to Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. The Republican former federal prosecutor and Monmouth County sheriff had become the state’s first lieutenant governor in January, 2010.
In November, 2010, she announced that she was “to refill the area next to the Statehouse as soon as possible to improve the grounds.”
Newspaper articles explained that Guadagno could see the site from her window and considered it an “eyesore.”
The bill to rescue the site was initiated by two Trenton-area Democratic members of the state assembly: Bonnie Watson Coleman (who at that time had claimed to be bullied by Governor Christie, who would later put her to a “Willie Horton” type of context) and assemblyman Reed Gusciora (later to be labeled “numbnuts” by Christie).
So that January day I’m sitting between enemy lines and behaving independently and objectively. After all more Republicans generally support cultural initiatives than Democrats — just compare Tom Kean’s increased support to Jim McGreevy’s move to cut the arts council.
I lean close to the microphone, state my name, and go on permanent record saying that the site should remain open to strengthen the city, attract people, and move in a positive direction.
As I leave the session I have a queasy feeling and wonder if I had just put myself in harm’s way with the state administration, especially the lieutenant governor. But then think, “But this is the United States where it is our duty to speak up. What could happen?”
With this administration, the answer seems to be plenty.
While the current revelations about the Christie administration waging retribution on Fort Lee may be an eye opener for some, it is something I have lived through.
Though it is unclear if Petty’s Run was one of the roads to my strange situation (but I can argue that it certainly put me on the lieutenant governor’s radar), there were a few other lanes leading to my bridge closing moment on March 25, 2011.
From 2003 to 2011 I was involved the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Public Arts Program. First as an individual on a few month contract, then a part-time Rutgers University managed program that enhances art management skills (I was interested in public art), and then as an agent for a non-profit organization that had previously provided services to the council.
The public arts project contracts contained mainly designated funds — a combined worth of approximately $300,000 total — and a small percentage for management — $12,000 maximum. My relationship with the programs began during the McGreevy administration and continued through Cody and Corzine, and then the current one.
I had come to live in Trenton in area in the late 1970s and worked as a freelance writer, the communications director for the New Jersey State Teen Arts, then assistant arts in education coordinator for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and then the director of communications and development for the New Jersey State Museum. The experiences solidified my awareness of both state art and state government.
While there were numerous other activities I also established Co-Works, a non-profit arts organization designed to partner with other agencies. Projects included management of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Writers-in-the-Schools Programs for three years in the early 1990s.
So my current involvement with the public arts project made sense because of my understanding of how the state functions, my proven track record, and my willingness to value satisfying work over a high pay check.
Meanwhile the newly arrived Christie administration was ready to throw its proverbial weight around. The main player here is Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, whose position requires her to assume a cabinet position. She chose to serve as secretary of state, a position that pays $140,000 per year.
Guadagno is an Iowa native whose father was a television executive who moved frequently, allowing his daughter to live in a variety of states before attending college in Pennsylvania and then Washington, D.C. where she received her law degree, cum laude, from the American University Washington College of Law.
She served as a federal prosecutor with the Organized Crime and Racketeering Strike force in Brooklyn, a Newark-based assistant United States attorney, and a ranking member of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.
Married to a New Jersey superior court justice, she left the position in 2001 to practice law, teach at Rutgers University Law School, and spend more time with her three children in Monmouth County. Subsequently she became involved with county politics and was elected county sheriff in 2007. Former United States District Attorney Chris Christie asked her to be his running mate in 2009.
During the administration’s first year, 2010, the lieutenant governor for some unclear reason began a campaign to remove the executive director of the State Council on the Arts — a person hired and fired only by the council — and pointed to an alleged ethics violation: the director followed through on a request by a volunteer council member to have the state ethics division review a proposal to allow council members be able to request a second complimentary ticket when reviewing performances of organizations.
Just in passing, from my experience, non-profit companies generally respond favorably to providing tickets to funders, reviewers, and others involved with the mechanics of creating cultural activities. It is no big deal and business as usual, something an ex-sheriff may not understand.
The lieutenant governor seized on the request to create a stir, labeled the director and the council unethical for requesting “freebies,” and demanded a new director.
New Jersey Assemblyman Patrick J. Diegnan Jr.’s August 10, 2010, letter to the Star-Ledger provides some context: “The recent questioning of the integrity of the members of the state Council on the Arts by Lt. Gov. Guadagno was unnecessarily heavy-handed. I have heard rumors that several members are considering resigning from the council rather than risk being labeled as unethical. I ask Gov. Chris Christie to intervene and use some common sense. The members of the Council on the Arts are some of the finest citizens of our great state. They deserve to be treated with respect and decency.”
The result was bad blood between the lieutenant governor and the arts council. Meanwhile, the lieutenant governor turned her attention to other business, including Petty’s Run.
At that time I was nearing the final stages of a protracted project, was preparing to complete the last project, and anticipated no further work with the council.
Then on the morning of Friday, March 25, 2011, it started. I received an early call from the NJSCA project manager with whom I worked and was told that the lieutenant governor had expressed problems with the Co-Works contracts.
Knowing that the arts council was in jeopardy and that fighting could make matters worse for everyone, I said that I would suspend the contracts and return the unspent monies.
Since the work was not complete I said that I would not take a fee — a practice that I had started years before when developing special projects — yet would provide a report so projects could be finished. It was an investment in sanity, even though I was patching various jobs together to make sure that I could be home to attend to my son and could use all the income that I could get. I was — and am — fortunate to have a wife who works full-time, has health benefits, worked in Piscataway, and is in the arts.
About an hour later I received a call from the attorney general’s office. A deputy attorney general announced that I was breaking the law by working under an illegal contract and needed to return the money.
Sensing that “unnecessary heavy-handed” signature style, I dismissed the accusations and informed the deputy about my previous conversation and decision to end the contract and return the funds.
However there were some perplexing questions. Why after several years of receiving contracts from the state was it suddenly illegal? Why was only one contract noted when there were several? Why would a deputy attorney general call someone who was supposedly breaking the law to have a discussion about it with them? And could this have anything to do with Petty’s Run? I just shook my head.
As part of ending my involvement with the projects, I contacted a state official with whom I normally communicated and related what had just transpired. The reply was that this was the way that this administration worked: to smear and bully people — just as the lieutenant governor had done with the arts council. Hmm.
In a matter of hours I had prepared final reports, returned the majority of funds, contacted project stakeholders and vendors, and began tying up all loose ends. In a few days I was finished. Or so I thought.
On April 12, according to a Star-Ledger article, the lieutenant governor appeared before the Assembly budget committee and “described the arts council as a rogue agency that answers to no state official or department regarding its activities.” The contracts were brought up.
Then, on May 9, at a senate budget hearing, the heavy handedness got heavier, and the contracts in which I had been involved became a major topic of discussion.
The Star-Ledger, which printed several articles that week — including one titled “Lt. Gov. Guadagno’s Own Records Contradict Public Criticism of N.J. Arts Council” — reported that the lieutenant governor “told lawmakers about a routine audit by the Office of Legislative Services that had uncovered contracts worth more than $250,000 that were not properly documented and did not follow state procurement procedures. A third, for $50,000, was discovered upon further review, she said.”
I am unclear why the word “discovered” was used because the contract was known to the department of state’s fiscal officer, was monitored by the arts council coordinator, and was described in the final report that I had submitted.
Then the lieutenant governor announced she was launching a criminal investigation into the contracts. Although she mentioned others — including the arts council director, the project manager with whom I worked, and a member of the department of state’s financial officer — she chose to spell my name during the hearing that was broadcast over the Internet.
As the Star-Ledger noted, “Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno told lawmakers that the council improperly awarded three contracts for public art projects, including several involving the state’s 9/11 Memorial at Liberty State Park in Jersey City. The contracts ‘exceeded $300,000 and were awarded to a sole contractor,’ Guadagno said. They ‘were not publicly bid, nor were state procurement practices followed.’”
The article added that “Guadagno blamed the council’s staff for the mistake and expressed frustration that her office, the Department of State, had ‘no oversight authority’ over the arts council or its activities.”
However, “a Star-Ledger review of the contracts and other Department of State documents — including the arts council’s own internal report — shows that the contracts were actually green lighted by the State Department itself,” and that “documents show that the contracts were complex management agreements for three public art commissions and that most of the funds were targeted to artists and fabricators. The ‘sole contractor’ mentioned by Guadagno could only earn about $12,000, according to the terms of the agreements,” said the article.
When the reporter asked the lieutenant governor to respond to the findings, she was told that Guadagno “would not discuss the newspaper’s findings, according to her spokesman, who added that the lieutenant governor would have no further comment until a final audit report is released,” although she was willing to use incomplete findings to smear the council and others.
The Star-Ledger also found that “the arts council’s internal review of the contract issue found that (arts council executive director) and his staff ‘acted appropriately’ and were actually guided by Guadagno’s own staff in the Division of Administration at every turn. In its five-page report, the arts council describes the division as the gatekeeper for its financial dealings. ‘The council cannot establish a state purchase order or issue payments directly — only the Department of State’s Division of Administration has this authority,’ according to the council’s review.”
Then a May 12 Star-Ledger editorial weighed in with the following: “Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno is starring in a new show: Amateur Hour in Trenton. There’s no other way to describe her performance before the Senate budget committee on Monday, which left committee members baffled. ‘It was a very, very bizarre hearing,’ said committee chairman Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen). ‘Very.’”
After noting that it reviewed the lieutenant governor’s claims and the facts, the editorial ended with what seems to reflect the style of the Christie administration, “Guadagno’s eagerness to jump on and exploit an incomplete audit — smearing reputations in the process — should make everyone queasy.”
It would have been nice if that was the end, but it was only the start of a Kafka-esque episode with criminal investigators arriving at my house on July 1 to discuss the contracts. Since I was not home, they told my wife that I was to contact them immediately.
When I did I was told that I needed to report to the attorney general’s office and potentially face a grand jury.
But the question was why? It was clear from the documents, newspaper investigations, and internal arts council reports that there was no criminality, but now — on top of losing both income and the satisfaction of finishing important cultural work as well as having my reputation tainted during a legislative session — I was facing some form of legal questioning or inquisition launched by the state’s second in command.
After my wife broke into tears and said that she was afraid that we were being pulled into something that could financially ruin us, I told her that all would be okay and that I would get a lawyer, After all, I said, the only thing I did wrong was to try to work on some cultural projects under a mean-spirited administration.
Yet I was secretly worried that somehow dirty politics or tricks would be used to vindicate the person who now needed a victory. Actually I continue to fear that somehow something will be cooked up to set me up.
After talking to people in the arts and in law, I obtained legal representation from a Hackensack-based law firm that was experienced in state law and used former federal prosecutors — at $500 per hour. And on one brutally hot summer day I took all my files for a trip across New Jersey to the law firm that one of the other “accused” would also use.
Upon asking me questions and looking over the contracts and clear financial reports — I used separate bank accounts for projects to provide absolute transparency — one of the attorneys summed the situation up with, “This would be ludicrous, if the person making the claims wasn’t so powerful.” Right.
The matter became stranger to them when I noted that no one from the state had ever asked me to bring in my records for review or even ask me a question.
Back on the turnpike and driving through the Meadowlands, I thought of all the things in New Jersey that needed attention and wondered how many tax dollars this administration was spending to investigate me — some guy working for peanuts while trying to create some interpretative signage for the New Jersey 9/11 Memorial (something that the staff at Liberty State Park had asked for) and help get some public art for the War Memorial building in Trenton. Surly there are more important things in New Jersey, but it’s easier to make news out of perceived crime-busting than actually solving real problems.
Although I was able to work on a novella — and wishing that I could create a story as fantastic as the one that I was in — and organizing an arts project in Trenton, it was a long and worrisome summer. The date for the meeting with the attorney general changed several times, and so did its shape: from grand jury to proffer (to offer testimony and evidence in a meeting format) to grand jury and then back to proffer.
At last a date was set: Friday morning, August 26, at the attorney general’s criminal division office in Whippany. So what if it was 60 miles away? I was now looking forward to my day in court and getting the matter resolved. My worrying was affecting my sleep and well being. I was living in a type of suspended animation while invisible and well-paid state employees were busy deciding my fate.
With my wife and son away on vacation, I devoted the entire day before the session to prepare with my lawyer. By now I had given up worrying about the cost and was concentrating on making sure that I protected my wife and son against any potential dirty tricks.
As stressful as this matter was, it suddenly intensified. My elderly mother called to say that my step-father had a stroke and that she was upset and alone at their home on the Jersey shore. There was also an announcement that Hurricane Irene was fast approaching the state.
As Governor Christie was busy making one of his famous statement, “Get the hell off the beach!” I was trying to figure out how to drive south to Wildwood to help my mother while also driving north to Whippany to discuss — hold on — the legal state contracts with state investigators ordered to do so by the person whose office issued the contracts in the first place.
It’s sad to realize that I’ll never be able to write a scenario as funny as this.
Having worked as a professional theater producer, I knew how to deal with complex situations. I swung into action, arranged to get my mother to my Hamilton Township house, and prepare for my session at the Attorney General’s office.
At the appointed day and hour the lawyer and I walked into the session with the contracts, bank statements, letters, and anything else that I thought was vital. When anyone asked for anything, it was there.
It was then that it became more apparent that I had a more complete set of state contracts and documents than the state had. While that was disturbing enough, I then discovered that the investigators had gone through my personal bank accounts based on the contradictory and inaccurate accusations of the lieutenant governor. Talk about feeling queasy.
One moment, however, tilted the entire proceedings towards the absurdity that it was. A copy of a personal check for about $80 that I had written out to the arts council project coordinator had attracted some attention, and I was asked to explain. “It seems to say ‘Nixon in China’ on the memo,” said one of the investigators. She was right; the check was a reimbursement for opera tickets that my colleague purchased at a reduced cost through his Metropolitan Opera membership. “Opera? Oh, you arty guys,” mumbled my lawyer. Arty indeed.
Now free from the session, I rushed back to Hamilton to be home when my mother was delivered from Wildwood and discovered that my sewer line broke and was leaking into my downstairs office, as if I had not had enough sewer waste over the past several months.
September and October were filled with wondering what was happening with the investigation and waiting and waiting for the verdict. And since legal counsel advised that those under investigation should avoid talking to one another so there was no suspicion of collusion — to continue telling the truth? — I waited alone and felt alienated from my colleagues and work.
Then one late October day I got an E-mail from one of the “accused” and was told that the case had been closed and — except in my case stolen time and $7,000 in legal fees — the findings were what everyone had said from the beginning: the contracts were legal and there was no wrong doing.
That conclusion made me wonder how it all started. Did my involvement with Petty’s Run set up a desire to “get him” and found a bonus when it could get the arts council too? But in truth it doesn’t matter: there was a public smearing and an ensuing witch hunt.
I was also wondering why someone from the state’s attorney general would call and tell me that I had an illegal contract and why the department of state staff would go along with all of this. And there is a potential clue near the end of this narrative.
The Star-Ledger, which had been with the case from the start, also wrote the end: “The quiet conclusion was an anti-climatic end to a melodrama Aubrey believes could have been avoided if Guadagno sought information instead of intrigue. He said Guadagno’s dramatic testimony was filled with inaccuracies and misinformation that could have been clarified in a short meeting with him and the arts council staff. It could also have saved him months of worry and the financial burden of hiring an attorney to guide him through the investigation.”
Then as 2011 closed out the Ledger ran a final statement, an editorial titled “Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno’s Groundless Crusade Tarnishes N.J. State Arts Council,” where the editors called the entire affair “a sloppy power grab, nothing else.”
But the Ledger’s note that Guadagno’s actions were “nothing else” is wrong. There is a something else and it is appearing in the E-mails of Governor Christie’s staff, especially in the glee of seeing people hurt.
In Fort Lee the ridiculed were people attempting to get their kids to school or get to work.
In Trenton it was an arts professional who helped make the New Jersey State Council on the Arts one of the most respected state arts agencies in the nation and dedicated cultural employees and volunteers who were smeared in public by someone who had the power and position to do so.
And around the state it is the teacher, the veteran, or the reporter who disagrees with the governor and gets labeled “idiot” or “stupid” while staff members look on and laugh.
A recent newspaper article on the George Washington Bridge scandal touches that “something” when it talks about the Christie administration’s penchant for vindictiveness: “State Sen. Barbara Buono, the failed Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said she is feeling frustrated and sad over the bridge scandal because no one was interested enough in the bridge scandal during the campaign. No one seemed concerned about his ‘bully’ attitude. ‘The culture of fear that permeates the walls of the Statehouse is like nothing I have seen in my 20 years here,’ Buono said.”
I saw and felt it, and like Buono I found it is difficult for people to grasp just how insidious it all is.
I hope that this helps and that the administration is finished with me. But, as Fats Waller said, “One never knows, do one?” All I know is that I feel queasy.
Dan Aubrey is a longtime supporter and participant in the arts in central New Jersey. He is the arts editor of U.S. 1 Newspaper, a weekly business and entertainment journal that has been based in Princeton for nearly 30 years.