CLARK — As allegations of bigotry and deception continue to pile up around Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso and several high-ranking members of the township’s police department, the quiet New Jersey suburb has suddenly found itself awash in the national public spotlight.
On Tuesday, nearly a week after an article published by nj.com revealed a slew of racist remarks allegedly made by the mayor and others, Mayor Bonaccorso took to YouTube to apologize for any offense he may have caused.
“I’m here today to say I’ve made mistakes, and I’d like to apologize for the pain I caused to the residents of Clark, my family, my friends and all those that were offended by my comments. They had a right to expect more from me. My words should not reflect on any of them. I deeply apologize for my hurtful and insensitive language,” he said. “It was wrong. I’m embarrassed and ashamed to have spoken that way about a race of people.”
Mr. Bonaccorso’s video attracted more than 1,500 views in a span of less than three hours on Tuesday evening.
“The truth is, I do not have a memory of every conversation I’ve had, and these are over four years old. I can say that I am a very different person in 2022 than I was in 2020,” Mr. Bonaccorso continued.
Though comments were not permitted on the township’s YouTube channel, the video has since been reposted via social media. So far, public reaction has been mixed. “Time for him to go,” one comment, shared via Facebook, reads. “You’re only sorry that you got caught, dirt bag,” said another. Others, however, seemed to take the mayor’s apology in stride.
“We are who we are because of what we were raised to believe. It takes time to change,” one woman wrote.
While Mayor Bonaccorso may still have some loyal fans in his camp, only time will tell if his acknowledgement of the incident will be enough to combat the serious list of allegations that have been levied against him.
On Wednesday of last week, nj.com released the contents of seven clandestine recordings in which Mayor Bonaccorso, Police Chief Pedro Matos and Internal Affairs Sergeant Joseph Teston are allegedly heard referring to Black residents as “spooks,” “shines” and “n******.” Although a myriad of state, county and local officials have all since come forward to demand his immediate resignation, Mayor Bonaccorso, for now, at least, is not budging.
“We must remind the residents of Union County that this is not us — we stand against the remarks of the Mayor and Public Safety Officials in Clark and we stand with the people of the community who are calling for their immediate resignation, as their racist and sexist remarks clearly illustrate that they are unfit to lead. We stand with the community, which is equally outraged, and we continue to be committed to the work that makes us unified,” the Union County Board of County Commissioners said via a public statement.
Governor Phil Murphy called the recordings “deeply disturbing.” Congressional Republican candidate Tom Kean, Jr., who has previously campaigned alongside Mr. Bonaccorso, said last Friday that elected officials have to hold themselves to the “highest standards.”
“We cannot tolerate racism in public service, and I know the mayor understands that,” said Mr. Kean.
Representatives from the Democratic Campaign Committee, however, said Mr. Kean’s remarks were insufficient in addressing the situation.
“Tom Kean, Jr.’s response isn’t good enough,” the organization said via written statement. “He should reject Bonaccorso’s endorsement and call on him to resign.”
Although the Clark Police Department has not yet commented on the situation, Clark Township Police Benevolent Association President Michael Ciaccio and State Delegate Maz Elwardany released the following joint statement on Tuesday: “While the men and women serving in the Clark PBA eagerly await the County Prosecutor/Attorney General report on these incidents, based on media reports we need to speak out loudly against racism and sexism.
The fact remains that our membership loves serving within this community, and we take great pride in the work we put forward every day to make sure streets are protected and families are secure. Part of that security is the assurance that everyone will be treated equally and fairly, and that has always been the priority for the Clark PBA.”
To break the recordings down a bit further, the three men can be heard making jokes about lynching (“We [expletive] hang the spooks up there,” Mayor Bonaccorso allegedly says in reference to some ropes that were found hanging from the rafters at the township’s recreation center) and referring to a Black suspect as “a [expletive] animal” with “a big [expletive] monkey head.”
The nj.com story attributes the latter quote to Mr. Teston, the Internal Affairs officer.
In one of the recordings, one of the men, allegedly Mayor Bonaccorso, says that women do not belong on the police force because “they are all [expletive] disasters.”
In another, Police Chief Matos can (again, allegedly — township officials have yet to confirm or deny the identities of the speakers and Mayor Bonaccorso did not provide any additional clarification during his Tuesday evening apology) be heard to say that he would like to reopen a bias investigation from 2017 where a black puppet was found hanging by the neck at Arthur L. Johnson High School, in order to “prove that them [expletive] [n******] did it.”
The recordings, though noteworthy in and of themselves, actually represent a larger, far more complicated situation that has been festering within the township for more than two years.
The recordings were captured in secret by former Clark Police Lieutenant Antonio Manata between November 2018 and July 2019. According to the nj.com story, Mr. Manata used the recordings as fodder for a lawsuit that he and his then-attorney, Patrick Toscano, Jr., intended to file against the township in December 2019.
Instead, as Mr. Manata’s current attorney, Valerie Palma DeLuisi, Esq., was able to affirm, the township opted to avoid the potentially damaging lawsuit by reaching a settlement outside of court. The settlement, dated January 29, 2020, allowed Mr. Manata to remain on as an inactive member of the police department while still collecting his full salary of approximately $140,000 per year, for a total of $289,700 over 25 months. The settlement also awarded Mr. Manata $275,000 in damages and paid out approximately $125,000 in legal fees for Mr. Toscano’s services. The terms of the settlement dictate that Mr. Manata would only get the money on the conditions that he turn his recordings and notes over to the township and sign a confidentiality agreement. Any violation of that agreement would force Mr. Manata to repay the $275,000 that he had previously been awarded.
“The resolution to settle this matter was done at an open public meeting on an agenda. It was not an add-on to an agenda. It was posted on our website…with a date of February 5, 2020,” Mayor Bonaccorso said Monday, again reiterating that every decision leading up to the nj.com article was fully above board.
Township records indicate that the matter was addressed during a special meeting of the mayor and council held on February 3, 2020. Minutes from the meeting refer to the “insurance settlement of the Manata personnel dispute,” but give no other details. There is no record of any public comment or further explanation. The resolution to grant the settlement was unanimously approved by council members Angel Albanese, Al Barr, Steven Hund, Frank Mazzarella, Bill Smith, Brian Toal and Patrick O’Connor.
According to information provided by the New Jersey Department of the Treasury Division of Pensions and Benefits, Mr. Manata was set to officially “retire” from the force and start collecting his monthly pension of $7,569.90 on March 1 of this year. But, Ms. DeLuisi said, since the prosecutor’s office is still actively “investigating” Mr. Manata’s record of work, the payments do not have to be released until the investigation is complete.
“I believe this ongoing investigation into my client is retaliatory in nature,” Ms. DeLuisi said. “I believe they are targeting my client. They want to discredit the messenger and I think they are in direct violation of New Jersey’s whistleblower laws.”
Mr. Manata said Monday that he could not comment on anything pertaining to the lawsuit, the settlement or the recordings.
Matters continued to escalate in Clark even after the initial settlement with Mr. Manata was reached in 2020.
On July 23, 2020, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, then under the direction of acting county prosecutor Lyndsay Ruotolo, issued a press release stating that the prosecutor’s office would be “assum[ing] control of the law enforcement and internal affairs functions of the Clark Township Police Department, effective immediately.”
Chief Matos, Sgt. Teston and Captain Vincent Concina, who also was named in Mr. Manata’s unfiled lawsuit, were immediately placed on paid administrative leave with promises of, as the press release put it, a “full inquiry into credible allegations of misconduct involving the leadership of the Clark Township Police Department” by the prosecutor’s office.
The officers were not named in the release, nor was any additional information provided as to the specific nature of the investigation.
By the time Ms. Ruotolo stepped down in July of last year, however, nothing had changed. The matter then continued to languish under the direction of newly-appointed Prosecutor William Daniel, who was sworn in on July 14 of that same year.
To date, the three officers have been paid out a combined total of more than $763,000 in taxpayer-funded salaries. The police department still remains under the control of the prosecutor’s office.
On January 20 of this year, Union County HAWK submitted Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests to the prosecutor’s office, asking for “the names and ranks of the members of the Clark Police Department that have been on administrative leave since July 2020, a list of allegations and formal charges made against those members of the Clark Police Department and the results of the prosecutor’s inquest into said allegations.” A response, dated February 17, denied most of the requests on the grounds that “public employee personnel records, with limited exceptions not applicable here, are not public records subject to disclosure under OPRA.” The letter did, however, indicate that the county “had no responsive records” to share in regards to the prosecutor’s office’s promised investigation.”
Now, almost two years after the three officers were suspended from the force, the question remains: what was the holdup at the county level, and what does the prosecutor’s office plan to do now that the information is finally out in the open? Although elected officials and members of the public alike are now demanding answers, the prosecutor’s office, like the Township of Clark and many of its higher-ups, are keeping things quiet.