With the next Jersey City Board of Education (JCBOE) election just days away, voters could reelect current Board Chair Sudhan Thomas despite a looming lawsuit against him alleging financial impropriety during his stint as interim head of the city’s job training program. Not only could Thomas win a second school board term, he would be allowed to serve the term since neither the allegations nor the pending lawsuit would legally bar him from doing so.
Thomas is currently completing his first term on the school board. First elected in 2016, he became board chair 15 months later. He is now running for reelection as part of the “Education Matters” slate, which has been endorsed by the local teachers’ union, with fellow candidates Gerald Lyons, Gina Verdibello, Lekendrick Shaw, and Darwin Ona. On Nov. 5, voters will be asked to select three candidates to serve three-year terms and two candidates to serve one-year terms. Thomas is among the candidates seeking a full three-year term on the board.
The winning candidates in the upcoming race will join the nine-member JCBOE during a particularly tumultuous period for Jersey City’s schools. With a budget of $660 million for the 2019-2020 school year, the 30,000-student school district had to take extraordinary steps to avoid a $40 million deficit for the year. In the coming years the board hopes to bring in at least $27 million from the city’s new payroll tax (dedicated expressly to funding the schools). But more dollars will be needed to fully fund the district at a time when state aid has been cut significantly. And over the next 18 months the school board will also be tasked with conducting a national search for a new schools superintendent.
Given this context and the allegations against him, some voters and rival JCBOE candidates have questioned Thomas’ fitness for the board.
THE ALLEGATIONS IN DETAIL
According to Nuria Sierra, former accountant at the Jersey City Employment and Training Program (JCETP), Thomas allegedly intercepted a $77,000 Community Development Block Grant check issued to it to reimburse the program for expenses it had previously incurred. (Thomas had been appointed to the board of the program by Mayor Fulop in April 2018 and became its president three months later.) According to court documents, Sierra said Thomas used the grant check to open five bank accounts at Bayonne Community Bank. Throughout the spring, Thomas allegedly cashed three checks — in the amounts of $7,500, $4,500, and $4,500 — drawn against these accounts. Allegedly Thomas never submitted documentation or receipts to the JCETP proving that these funds were used for their intended purpose.
In addition to these withdrawals, which total $16,500, Thomas allegedly withdrew $3,000 from a JCETP account at Provident Bank again without providing any documentation to Sierra or the program’s Chief Financial Officer Angel Santa regarding how this cash was used.
Sierra said she suspected in May (of this year) that these funds may have been misused when she began to receive cancelled checks and noticed that JCETP bills were going unpaid. According to the lawsuit, at Thomas’s direction, “JCETP stopped payroll and other necessary payments to certain employees and/or former employees. Checks were made out to each employee due money, but…Thomas compelled Santa to void the checks.”
According to her complaint, Thomas refused to authorize payments for health insurance premiums, which she said led to the suspension of health care coverage for JCETP employees. Sierra alleges that chemotherapy treatment for one JCETP worker was denied due to this suspension of health insurance.
Believing the program’s failure to maintain health insurance for its employees to be a violation of New Jersey law, Sierra complained to CFO Santa in May. In July she blew the whistle on Thomas’ alleged conduct to several state and city officials; she was terminated only days later on July 11. In August Sierra filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging wrongful termination against Thomas, Santa, and the JCETP Board.
Thomas, whose stint as interim director was due to end in September, instead resigned in August. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.
IMPACT OF LAWSUIT ON NOV. 5 ELECTION
Despite recent updates in the case, including one first broken by Hudson County View that JCETP Chair Stacey Flanagan has stated in court filings that the FBI is investigating the city’s employment program, the allegations may have little impact on Thomas’ reelection bid.
Asheenia Johnson, a candidate running for a three-year term on the “Change for Children” slate, has been the most vocal in raising concerns about Thomas.
“Mr. Thomas is asking the voters of Jersey City to give him another opportunity to serve on the board,” said Johnson. “The facts are, Mr. Thomas circumvented policy and has no respect for organizational protocol and does as he pleases. Why would we as a community want to place him at the helm of a nearly $700 million budget when it is evident he has no respect for the residents he serves? If we want integrity and transparency, he is clearly not the choice for our school system.”
Despite these concerns, as of October, the JCBOE legal counsel wasn’t even aware of the allegations.
“I have no knowledge of the lawsuit you are referring to,” said JCBOE Corporate Counsel Michael Gross. “However, if it is a lawsuit outside the JCBOE, it has nothing to do with me.”
Gross added that under New Jersey law, anyone elected to a municipal school board must take an oath to uphold the state’s code of ethics. “Let’s be clear,” Gross said. “Sudhan Thomas has not violated the code of ethics and is in good standing. If there were to be any reported violations, they will be dealt with accordingly.”
When pressed as to what financial improprieties might run afoul of the code of ethics, Gross quipped: “What kind of financial improprieties? Like if he robbed a bank? Mr. Thomas robbing a bank is not a violation of the code of ethics as enforced by the State of New Jersey.”
True, any alleged misconduct committed outside of the JCBOE is not a violation of the code of ethics for members of a school board.
The Education Matters team appears unbothered by the allegations.
“Last time I checked we still live in a country where innocence is a preclusion, so we based our endorsements on those who we found to hold the same pro-public principles that we hold near and dear to our hearts,” said Education Matters Campaign Director Mike Greco, who also sits on the executive board of the Jersey City Education Association. “Our endorsed candidates are focused on the issues of continuing the progress they started. We followed NJEA PAC guidelines in screening and selecting our candidates as we always do.”
The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) is the state’s largest teachers’ union, with affiliated chapters throughout the state, including the Jersey City Education Association. NJEA represents 200,000 teachers and certified staff statewide. The organization’s political action committee, NJEA PAC, endorses candidates running for state office while its affiliates get involved in municipal races.
Thomas’ slate mates have been mum on the allegations, preferring to refer questions related to the Sierra lawsuit to Thomas or Greco.
No matter the outcome on Nov. 5, Sierra’s lawsuit will continue, according to her attorney William Matsikoudis. “This case is in the initial stages,” he said. “The Jersey City Employment Training Program and Angel Santa have filed answers [to the complaint]. We expect Sudan Thomas to do so soon.”
As first reported by the New Jersey Globe, JCETP Chief Financial Officer Angel Santa recently answered Sierra’s lawsuit and confirmed several of her key allegations.
The attorney for Thomas, Chris Adams, did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.