NJ report finds ‘disturbing’ racism among Clark Township officials, mayor facing charges

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By Dan Sears

New Jersey’s attorney general charged the longtime mayor of Clark Township with public corruption Monday, saying he ran his landscaping company out of town hall.

He also recommended firing two top police officers after a years-long investigation found rampant racism, sexism and poor professional practices in the township’s police department.

Attorney General Matthew Platkin said detectives uncovered a scheme that Mayor Salvatore Bonaccorso used city resources and personnel to run his private landscaping company. The AG also accused Bonaccorso of fraudulently obtaining permits to remove underground oil tanks while taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars for the work.

“While acting in his official capacity as the mayor, Bonaccorso allegedly operated his tank-removal business out of his township office,” Platkin said.

He said Bonaccorso used an engineer’s name and license number on permit applications in nearly two dozen towns for tank inspections and removals, without the engineer’s knowledge.

Bonaccorso, 63, has been the mayor of Clark since 2000. He was charged with official misconduct, records tampering, forgery, falsifying records and witness tampering — the latter because, officials said, he told a witness to lie to investigators.

Platkin’s office was investigating allegations of racism, sexism and the improper handling of a whistleblower when it discovered the allegations about the mayor’s underground tank business.

He released a 43-page report on his office’s findings Monday and called for Police Chief Pedro Matos and internal affairs head Sgt. Joseph Teston to be fired.

In late 2019, a whistleblower, police Lt. Antonio Manata, provided local officials with recordings of Bonaccorso, Matos and Teston using racial slurs. But NJ Advance Media reported two years later, Clark officials agreed to keep it quiet by paying the whistleblower, police Lt. Antonio Manata, a $400,000 settlement and let him stay on the payroll for another two years without working.

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The Union County Prosecutor’s Office took over the police department months after that agreement was signed and said it was looking into “credible allegations of misconduct,” but didn’t offer any further explanation at the time.

The AG’s office later took over that investigation. It describes in its report how it was initially looking into claims Clark officials were being blackmailed via anonymous letters threatening to turn over recordings of police officials to the media — but ultimately learned about the settlement with Manata.

Platkin’s office said investigators found “the use of racist, sexist and antisemitic slurs when discussing hiring practices and police actions by township officials including the Clark mayor, Matos, and Sgt. Joseph Teston.”

“On one particularly disturbing occasion, Matos used a racial slur to refer to children who were the victims of a perceived bias incident,” Platkin said during a news conference at his office in Newark Monday. “He was suggesting they reopen a criminal case into those very victims and blame them for something that he knew they had not done.”

Both Matos and Teston have been on paid suspension since the investigation began, NJ Advance Media has previously reported. Bonaccorso has resisted calls to resign and last year his supporters on the township council won reelection.

The attorney general’s office also conducted a review of police charges, arrests, use of force and traffic stops to look for evidence of racial bias.

“While much of the data that we uncovered was deeply troubling, the ability to draw the kind of definitive conclusions necessary to support criminal charges was rendered impossible by deficiencies in available data and retention of video evidence,” Platkin said.

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For instance, he said, from 2017-2023, 44% of the people arrested in Clark were Black — even though only 2% of the township’s population was Black. But he said investigators didn’t have enough information about how many people work or otherwise spend time in the township. And he said investigators found problems with the ways Clark police were retaining records, though those issues had been addressed or would be soon.

“Despite all that, we are still implementing a series of reforms that the department will have to undergo to ensure that anyone who comes into Clark, whether they live there, whether they’re shopping there, whether they’re dining there, is treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve,” Platkin said.

He is recommending the Clark Police Department make a long list of changes to its practices involving traffic stops, the searching of citizens and the retention of records. He’s also referred the racial bias inquiry to the state’s Division of Civil Rights.

The mayor’s office said it would not be releasing a statement about the charges. The Clark Police Department referred all calls to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, which took part in the Attorney’ General’s Office’s investigation.

It would normally be up to Clark’s mayor and town council to decide whether to fire Matos or Teston. However, Platkin’s office said the “appropriate authority” would have conflicts of interest “rendering it nearly impossible for them to be objective” in the matter and recommended the decision be delegated to someone without a conflict.

“It is clear that the town should adhere to these recommendations and if they don’t, I think we should have a conversation about how we provide me with that authority to do so,” Platkin said, suggesting he would go to the Legislature to address the issue.

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The allegations against Matos include failure to conduct internal affairs investigations, to report allegations of misconduct, not upholding standards of conduct related to derogatory comments and a lack of truthfulness, Platkin said.

Teston was also found to have violated the standard of conduct related to derogatory comments and failed to conduct internal affairs investigations, Platkin said.

And the attorney general cited what he said was another reason to fire Teston — that while on leave last year, he was arrested in New York. Platkin said Teston had admitted striking an unarmed stranger in the head with a glass bottle, but the charges in that incident were dropped.

Platkin also said he is referring the conduct of the town’s attorney, Joseph Triarsi, to the State Office of Attorney Ethics for his involvement in the $400,000 settlement.

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