You’d be hard pressed to find someone in Belleville who doesn’t already know At-Large Councilman Joseph V. Longo, or his rather colorful political history. For those of you who have been mercifully free of knowing what Longo is responsible for doing to Belleville and to the school district as an elected official on the municipal council, here’s a fairly quick overview.
From 2008 to 2014, Longo served two terms as a trustee on the Belleville Board of Education.
In 2014, Longo ran for the Belleville Council on a ticket with fellow BOE trustee Bill Freda, as well as Councilwoman Marie Strumolo-Burke who was vying for Mayor against incumbent Ray Kimble in a vicious and highly contentious political race that included the strategic release of a voicemail message allegedly from Strumolo-Burke that contained vulgar racial slurs.
Former councilman Michael Nicosia dropped out of his re-election race at the last minute under somewhat mysterious circumstances, leaving his seat wide open, and relegating Kimble and Kennedy’s running mate Charlie Hood to a write-in vote instead of a proper ballot position.
One of our first major campaigns in Belleville was to educate voters on how to perform a write-in vote for Hood, which is still one of our top articles of all time. Despite this major disadvantage at the polls, Hood would go on to receive more write-in votes than any other municipal candidate in New Jersey election history at that time.
As a result of the May 2014 election, Strumolo-Burke did not prevail against Kimble, but maintained her position as First Ward councilwoman. Bill Freda was defeated, and did not seek re-election to the school board. Longo however was successful in taking Nicosia’s at-large Council seat.
In July of 2014, Longo made the leap from school board trustee to sitting Belleville councilman.
Aside from the oily political regime in which he was a lead actor, what many people will no doubt associate Councilman Longo with is a disturbing series of scandals that were brought into the public eye during the time he was a BOE trustee for the troubled Belleville school district.
It’s easy to forget just how much this individual has done to Belleville, and the role he played in several outrageous ordeals that have cost the township and taxpayers dearly. Let’s take a brief look at just a few of the more notable achievements on Councilman Longo’s record of public service to Belleville residents as an elected official.
Longo’s Greatest Hits 2013-2015
Since nowadays people overwhelmingly prefer video content over reading, and no one does a better job of investigative reporting than my personal journalism hero Mr. Walt Kane of News 12 New Jersey, we’ll use some of the news segments we captured as they were broadcast to help bring you up to speed as quickly as possible.
May 2014 – Security System Gone Haywire
Not long after the tragic December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, CT, then-trustee Joe Longo proposed and spearheaded the implementation of a $2 million security system plus annual tech services contracts for the Belleville school district with Clarity Technologies, a company headed by a convicted felon who went to prison on tax evasion charges in 2008. The security system included RFID cards and more than 900 cameras, some with audio capability. The single-bid contract went from the board’s advertisement to bid acceptance in just 12 business days.
For comparison, the Clarity system was installed to provide surveillance for 9 Belleville schools at a cost of approximately $2 million. Around the same time, Fort Lee implemented a security system for 6 schools with Millenium Communications Group, which was also tied into the local police department, at a cost of only $234,500…less than an eighth of the price for Clarity.
This elaborate initiative is pushed forward by Longo and the board for the Belleville school district despite many months of furious outrage from teachers as well as the public over the justification for such an over-the-top and exorbitantly-priced system, especially in light of the ongoing lack of adequate school supplies, updated textbooks, working smartboards, or school computers manufactured anytime after the Paleolithic Age.
January 2015 – Belleville BOE Budget Deficit Scandal
Yes, that’s me in the video. Go easy, it was a hectic day and I had zero time to primp.
Coming as a shock to pretty much no one but maybe the NJ State Department of Education, the Belleville school district is discovered to be not only broke, but in a whopping $3.7 million deficit. This deficit is on an annual budget of $65 million. Detailed in a massive report from the State’s audit of the district, more than 90 budget lines had been overexpended. More than $2 million was disbursed without any supporting invoices or documentation. The district’s bank account, where reportedly the wife of a sitting board trustee was the manager, was also found to be in a $1.36 million overdraft.
On a side note, just imagine the fees and interest that were probably racked up on an overdraft of that magnitude. Then, remember that this is your tax dollars flying out the window hand over fist.
This also suggests that at the same time Longo and his associates were pushing the $2 million Clarity security system on the school district and taxpayers, they may have already been careening headlong into a deficit, if not in one already.
The fallout from the financial fiasco did not end here; not by any stretch of the imagination.
After the school district terminated the contracts with Clarity for example, they continued to wage a legal battle with the company into February of 2016. In total, between a settlement agreement and legal fees, it cost the Belleville school district nearly half a million dollars more to finally wrench itself free of the questionable contracts with Clarity, which again were spearheaded by Joe Longo.
Thanks to Longo and his fellow board trustees like John Rivera, Bill Freda, and Pete Zangari whose reckless incompetence had driven the Belleville school district into a financial calamity, the State DOE had to float the district a loan of approximately $4.3 million just to keep the doors open. Belleville taxpayers may not realize it, but because of this deficit, they are now stuck paying off that loan for a decade as an additional tax burden.
The State assigned financial monitor Thomas Egan to the district in May of 2014 where he’s been ever since. And we hope he continues to remain. Indefinitely. As in, screw your retirement plans pal, you’re stuck here.
And no, the State having a monitor assigned to the district is not at all the same thing as the State taking over. The people who keep hawking that line should stop with that nonsense immediately. Egan is only there because politicians in Belleville finally proved in the most visible and costly way imaginable to 36,000 residents that they cannot be trusted with 65 million of your tax dollars.
The State helped bring in Dr. Tomko in February of 2015, who in only two years as superintendent has put the Belleville school district back on track. There’s still plenty of work to do and the district faces enormous challenges, but Tomko and his administration are off to a promising start. Keeping Belleville politicians from establishing undue majority control over the school board again will ensure that Belleville students continue to receive the education they deserve.
By the way, if these councilmembers actually cared about educating children and equipping teachers with the resources they need even half as much as they care about controlling the school board each election and commandeering the district’s $65 million annual budget, the Belleville school district would be pumping out Nobel Peace Prize candidates by the busload. Then maybe I could have a brilliant young BHS scientist finally explain to me how we can flawlessly land an autonomous self-navigating 7-ton military drone on a pitching and rolling aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean, but my smartphone’s autocorrect deliberately tries to make me sound like an incoherent idiot to my colleagues all day long. Seriously, what the heck?
Sorry, I might have digressed a bit there.
September 2015 – The Infamous Flash Drives
Longo selling 2,000 flash drives to a school district with computers that can’t use flash drives. From his own company. To his own school district as a board trustee. After being scammed at work.
I just can’t.
Every time I watch this video, I feel like I’ve been sucked into a stupidity singularity.
October 2015 – Bid-Rigging Voicemail
Acting on a tip, we obtained and exposed a recording of a voicemail message from (by his own admission) Longo, which seemingly implicates him in a blatant attempt at bid-rigging a town contract for printing the township recycling calendar.
In an open-bid process, bids for a contract are solicited, and generally the lowest bid that comes in will get that contract. By asking an insider like the Town Manager who is reviewing the proposals where you should be pricing your own bid, in no uncertain terms you’re asking them to help you set the most attractive bid, thereby cheating your way into securing the contract. Obviously this violates the fundamental principles of the bidding process, not to mention the law.
That might be a problem.
Just remember that each of these issues involves public money. Cumulatively, millions of dollars of public money.
If after watching these News 12 videos, you’re wondering how no one has gone to prison for any of it, trust me, you’re not alone.
Yes, We Were Raided by a Corruption Unit, But You’re Still the Problem
By now, poor Councilman Longo is probably feeling like we’re singling him out. When it comes to being a political reptile however, Longo is far from alone.
While the various BOE scandals with Longo are falling out one by one in 2014-15, the rest of the Belleville Council was doing its best to try to distance itself from the proverbial poopstorm. The posturing and pontificating was endless. In reality however, these people were all historically allies at one time or another.
In at least one case, a councilman was busy trying to convince 400+ teachers that he was one of the good guys while his own website still displayed his political support for the re-election of Longo and Freda, two trustees who had just installed over 900 cameras in the school district to basically spy on and harass the teachers. Creeps.
The whole “good guys versus bad guys” image they desperately tried to project was just a matter of dates. When the public was looking, they distanced. Before anyone was paying attention, purely out of political survival, they were thick as thieves. Pardon the pun.
One of the best examples of these Oscar-winning political performances took place during the Council meeting on Feb 24, 2015.
When you watch this next clip, keep in mind that the $4 million BOE budget deficit scandal involving Longo had just gone public a month earlier. The Council took every opportunity to chastise Longo over it. While Longo was certainly persona non grata in Belleville for his actions as a recent BOE trustee, in a glorious twist of cosmic karma, less than two weeks before this video was recorded, Belleville Town Hall itself was raided by the Corruption Unit of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.
Now with both the school district and the municipality under some form of investigation, much misdirection and finger-pointing ensues.
Just remember Mayor Kimble, Counselor Tom Murphy, and Councilman Steve Rovell’s hostility on display toward Longo in this 2015 video clip. You might notice a subtle difference in their treatment of their “arch-nemesis” from 2016 to 2017.
The saga continues here: