OCEAN COUNTY – The New Jersey Superior Court decided that the Ocean County Prosecutor withheld evidence during the trial of former Brick Superintendent Walter Uszenski. As a result, the court dismissed charges against him that he provided free services to his grandson through the schools.
The 19-count indictment had charged Walter Uszenski of Brick, in his capacity as a superintendent, former Brick schools interim director of special services Andrew Morgan, former Brick schools academic officer Lorraine Morgan of Edison, and Jacqueline Halsey, the daughter of Uszenski. They were accused in 2013 of engineering a plan to get Halsey’s son (Uszenski’s grandson) free day care, special education services, and transportation, to the cost of approximately $50,000.
Charges against Uszenski and Halsey were dismissed. Two charges remain against Andrew Morgan.
Lorraine Morgan, Andrew Morgan’s wife, was charged Official Misconduct, a third degree offense, for her role in approving unnecessary counseling services for the former superintendent’s grandson. Her charge is under appeal separately, so it was not heard by the Superior Court.
The prosecutor’s story is a compelling one. It tells a tale of a superintendent who got a friend (Andrew Morgan) hired to a position where they would then be able to provide free services to a family member.
The prosecutor’s investigation revealed that Halsey initiated and approved the improper request and that both Morgan and Uszenski executed the necessary approvals required for the Brick Board of Education to fund the program and related services.
Andrew Morgan initially was hired by the Brick Board of Education, at the request and recommendation of Uszenski, to conduct an audit of the Brick schools special services department.
Uszenski and Morgan knew each other and had worked together before. The $17,499 audit, which is approximately 7 pages in length, was critical of the job performance of the then-director of special services. Morgan was paid $83.33 per hour for 210 hours to prepare and write the audit.
The school board then demoted the head of special services and hired Andrew Morgan as a replacement. It was alleged that the audit was a pretense to position Morgan as the director of the special services section. One of his first official acts was to engineer a fraudulent special education plan for Halsey’s child, who is also Uszenski’s grandchild, to receive unnecessary services and transportation at taxpayer’s expense.
However, Superior Court Judge Patricia Roe opined that this was not the entire story.
The investigation began when Mayor John Ducey asked Prosecutor Joseph Coronato to look into an allegation that the grandson was being driven to a private daycare on a public school bus, according to the opinion published on February 28. The boy is a Brick resident. He was 3 in 2011.
The boy was having behavioral issues and was being referred to the New Jersey Early Intervention System. His mother was also seeking help from Children’s Specialized Hospital and Brick Township Special Services. A neurologist from Children’s Specialized Hospital recommended one of three daycares to help with his aggressive behaviors. The child’s history of behavioral issues and experts’ recommendation for daycare placement in 2011 was not presented to the grand jury, Roe opined. This history also took place before Uszenski was hired as superintendent in July, 2012.
At the time, Brick’s director of special services was Donna Stump. Administration was looking into a shortfall in the district’s special education budget that resulted in transferring $750,000 to cover it. Stump explained that the error came from her failing to submit invoices for out-of-district expenses when she mistakenly placed the invoices under the blotter of her secretary.
Although some board members wanted her fired over this problem, Uszenski explained that she had tenure, and could only be demoted to her prior position. The incident did cause the district to audit the special services department to see if there were any other problems. This need for the audit was also not presented to the grand jury, Roe said.
As a result, the board hired Andrew Morgan to create a partial strategic plan for the department. The district’s human resource committee recommended to the board that they hire him as a consultant to work in the department as part of an audit.
The board of education passed a resolution stating that due to the timely need of an audit, the contract did not need to be bid out. It could just be appointed. The total fee for services would be $17,499 at $83.33 per hour (not to exceed 210 hours). His vouchers for the hours he worked were also never presented to the grand jury. Andrew Morgan’s pay was capped at 210 hours, however, he continued to work without additional compensation. There were never any public complaints from school officials as to his performance.
After Stump was demoted to her former position in the district, Andrew Morgan applied for the position. In the online application form, he checked “no” in response to the question of whether he had ever been terminated. He had, in fact, been terminated and forced to resign from several districts. He also checked “no” in response to whether he had been charged with a criminal offence, even though he had pled guilty of selling drugs in New York in 1990. These are the two charges he still faces. He eventually resigned in 2013, and Susan Russell became the new director of special services.
Meanwhile, the grandson’s behavioral issues waxed and waned. He was doing well enough to be in a traditional kindergarten, so he was taken out of special education. He then regressed in first grade. The child study team determined that he was again in need of special education services.
Therefore, the Superior Court declared that there were objective needs for the boy’s special education, and a need for an audit for the special services department.
“Had the grand jury been given the evidence of the reason there was a legitimate need for the audit as determined by the Board of Education, it is unlikely it would have returned indictments against Dr. Uszenski or Andrew Morgan for conspiracy, official misconduct or theft by deception,” the opinion stated.
The quality of the audit was called into question. Prosecutors claim that the hours he billed were made up, and that the audit report “reflect(s) no more than four-plus hours that was found on Mr. Morgan’s computer to write this seven-page-or-so document.” The pay was more about the hours that Morgan spent visiting schools and attending board meetings, the court declared.
Andrew Morgan had claimed that his prior drug conviction was expunged when he received his teaching certificate. The court found no basis for that claim, and therefore the counts against him still stand.
Although the defense claimed that the prosecutor’s actions were overzealous and engaged in misconduct, the court did not agree. The court did state that the prosecutor’s office should have presented the above information during grand jury.
“While there is some merit to the allegations that the prosecutor lost objectivity and presented an extremely narrow view of the facts to the grand jury; the court cannot find the actions of the prosecutor were intentionally vindictive…” Roe wrote.
Uszenski’s lawyer, Joseph Benedict, said he is unsure if Uszenski would go back to the district that had suspended him without pay. He has an employment lawyer to advise him about that.
In terms of the criminal parts of the trial, the case now lies with the prosecutor’s office whether it goes any further, he said.
“It’s a very defendable case,” Benedict said. “It would be a waste of their efforts.”
The prosecutor’s office still feels there is a case there, according to its press officer, Al Della Fave.
“We are reviewing the court’s written opinion and assessing our options,” he wrote in a statement. “We have 45 days to review. A determination will be made whether to appeal or represent the case to the Grand Jury. It is the firm belief of (the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office) that there has been a violation of the law and we will aggressively move forward in our efforts to continue prosecution. This is far from over.”