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Audit: Favoritism, shoddy hiring practices at schools agency

July 23, 2019

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The former head of the agency overseeing construction in New Jersey’s poorest school districts hired dozens of people with whom she had personal or professional connections, often to newly created positions without following proper procedures, an audit released Tuesday concluded.

A state official with knowledge of the matter confirmed published reports that 30 employees were terminated from the Schools Development Authority on Tuesday, including 27 who had been hired by former CEO Lizette Delgado-Polanco.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter. NJ.com first reported the firings.

Delgado-Polanco resigned under pressure for lawmakers in April after reports in The Record newspaper detailed hiring practices at the agency, which oversees billions of dollars in construction projects in 31 of New Jersey’s poorest districts.

At a hearing before state lawmakers in February, Delgado-Polanco defended her restructuring of the agency and said the people she hired had proven track records and were qualified to do their jobs.

The hiring spree occurred last year as Delgado-Polanco reorganized the Development Authority after taking over in August. Authority employees were often hired without interviews or job postings, and some weren’t qualified for their positions and had to be transferred or have their job descriptions modified, the audit found.

“With few exceptions among the list of 41 newly hired employees, all of those employees were somehow connected to Ms. Delgado Polanco, whether via a direct or indirect connection,” according to the audit.

The audit by Carmagnola and Ritardi, a Morristown-based law firm, was commissioned by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy. A separate review focusing on allegations of file-tampering at the authority, and a personnel and hiring practices review, also were released Tuesday.

“The findings of these three reports will help guide SDA leadership in recommitting to the organization’s core mission: providing underprivileged students with safe, high-quality learning environments,” Murphy said in an emailed statement.

Among the findings of the hiring audit:

— Job vacancies weren’t posted externally or internally.

— Screenings and interviews were rarely conducted.

— Managers and supervisors often weren’t consulted about hiring decisions within their department or changes to the structure of their department.

— No updated organizational chart was issued, despite the fact that 19 employees were fired and 41 people hired under Delgado-Polanco.

Some of the new employees were given higher salaries than longtime employees, creating resentment, according to the audit.

In one example, Delgado-Polanco recommended to the agency’s chief financial officer that he hire her cousin, Kenia Nunez Acuna, whom she said had been paid $105,000 at her previous job. Nunez was hired at a salary of $110,000, or about $29,000 more than the person she replaced, according to the audit.

Her supervisor told auditors he later found out she actually had been paid $83,000 at her previous job.

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