Attorney General probe finds misconduct by Clark Township government and police leaders

The Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) today announced the filing of criminal charges against the longtime Clark Township Mayor Salvatore Bonaccorso, who allegedly submitted false and fraudulent paperwork to nearly two-dozen municipalities, in order to facilitate his landscaping company’s improper removal of hundreds of underground storage tanks (USTs).

Bonaccorso, 63, of Clark, New Jersey, was also charged on November 20, 2023, with official misconduct, after an investigation by the OPIA Corruption Bureau found that, while acting in his official capacity as the mayor, Bonaccorso allegedly operated his tank-removal business out of his township office utilizing municipal resources, by storing and maintaining the records for the business at the Mayor’s office, using township devices including computers and fax machines, and directing township employees to perform duties while working for the township, solely for the purpose of running his private business.

During the course of the investigation, OPIA also discovered, and it is alleged, that the defendant and his landscaping and underground storage tank company, Bonaccorso & Son LLC, fraudulently used an engineer’s name, license number, as well as, in many cases, forging the engineer’s signature on permit applications submitted to municipalities for tank removals — knowing that the engineer was neither supervising nor in any way involved in those projects, and without any legally required tank inspections actually taking place at those job sites. In fact, it is alleged that neither Bonaccorso nor his company have the necessary underground storage tank removal license required to do such work.

Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin also announced the release of a report examining misconduct by leaders in Clark Township but criminal charges are not being pursued.

The blockbuster report recommends that two police department officials be fired, including the chief, and makes referrals for further action to four entities, including the Division on Civil Rights.

The 43-page report issued Monday by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), following an investigation into allegations of misconduct by leaders of Clark Township’s municipal government and the Clark Police Department (CPD), delivers on a promise made by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office and OAG when they first exercised supersession and took control of the department in July 2020.

“There is a social contract that imposes an expectation that officials in positions of governmental and law enforcement leadership will do the right thing, act not in self-interest but in service to the greater good, and treat all people with respect and dignity as equals,” said Platkin. “These are not naïve ideals or lofty ambitions, but rather the bare minimum expectations communities should have in their leaders. The leaders in the Clark Police Department, and the Township more generally, failed to keep up their end of that bargain.”

While grand jury secrecy precludes the disclosure of certain details – especially with regard to uncharged conduct – the report endeavors to provide the public with the maximum amount of transparency as permissible by law.

Whenever possible, details of the investigation are shared when they could be established by publicly available sources or information obtained through the investigation by means other than grand jury process.

“The allegations giving rise to these investigations rocked the public’s trust in government,” says the report. “Mindful of the legal limitations to disclosing certain information, this report attempts to restore community trust in some small measure through publicly disclosing the State’s findings.”

“It is also hoped that the issuance of this report will also bring some closure to the uncertainty CPD officers have experienced over these past years,” says the report. “It is further hoped and expected that CPD officers and UCPO will continue to be the State’s partners in improving police culture and practices so that we can better fulfill our collective mission to make New Jersey more safe and more just for all.”

In addition to detailing the State’s findings, the report also directs CPD and UCPO to implement several interventions required by the Attorney General to address concerns identified through the investigation.

At the direction of the Attorney General, UCPO’s supersession of CPD will continue.

The department is also being directed to take a series of other steps, including but not limited to improvements in its data collection and analysis, changes in how traffic stops are conducted, revisions to attendance policies for superior officers, and enhanced civilian relationships, department diversity, and officer wellness.

The series of events leading to the supersession began in May 2020, when UCPO received an anonymous letter alleging that a CPD officer was being paid for a no-show job and that the police chief, Pedro Matos, was covering it up.

A month later, the township attorney advised UCPO that the township was being blackmailed, allegedly by the same officer, in letters making numerous allegations – including claims of racist comments by Matos.

In the course of the investigation, investigators uncovered the use of racist, sexist and antisemitic slurs when discussing hiring practices and police actions by township officials including Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso, Matos, and Sgt. Joseph Teston, who headed the internal affairs unit.

Over the last several years, the State interviewed numerous witnesses, reviewed thousands of records and hundreds of recordings, and conducted a comprehensive audit of CPD’s practices.

While the State has reached the decision, following a lengthy and thorough investigation, that absent new evidence, criminal charges are being declined at this time, the report provides the public with an overview of the investigative steps taken and legal analysis conducted to reach that conclusion.

Additionally, the Attorney General exercised his authority to release the findings of the internal affairs investigations.

The investigation found that Matos had repeatedly not forwarded allegations of wrongdoing to UCPO, as required by internal affairs procedures issued by the Attorney General.

It also found he had violated the standard of conduct related to derogatory comments and exhibited a lack of truthfulness during an internal affairs inquiry.

“Such findings would render someone unfit to be an officer – let alone the leader of a law enforcement agency,” says the report.

The report includes the Attorney General’s recommendation that the township fire Matos and Teston, the latter of whom was found to have violated the standard of conduct related to derogatory comments, and failed to conduct internal affairs investigations.

Teston, while on administrative leave, also was arrested in April 2022 outside of a professional sports stadium in New York, for what would have been aggravated assault if it occurred in New Jersey. The charges were dropped in New York state, but Teston admitted to injuring an unarmed stranger by striking him in the head with a glass bottle and fleeing the scene. This investigation also resulted in serious violations and an independent basis for the termination of his employment.

Recommendations of the Attorney General are not binding, but rather the determination will be made by a township official. The Appropriate Authority in this instance has a conflict of interest rendering it nearly impossible for them to be objective in reviewing the findings or recommendation of the Chief Law Enforcement Officer for the State of New Jersey. It is strongly recommended that the Appropriate Authority designate an independent individual who does not suffer from any conflict of interest to make the final determination of discipline in these matters.

While the report sets forth that criminal charges, absent additional evidence, are being declined at this time, the report includes several public referrals to other agencies and offices to take any further action deemed appropriate. These include:

  • A referral regarding the disparities in police practices uncovered by the report was made to the Division on Civil Rights, which enforces the State’s civil rights law, including the Law Against Discrimination.
  • A referral to the Office of Attorney Ethics, regarding the conduct of the Township Attorney involved in drafting and negotiating a settlement agreement between the Township and a now former CPD officer that contained unenforceable provisions that violate State law and Attorney General directives, and used public funds to conceal individual wrongdoing.
  • To the State Comptroller, as the confidential settlement agreement expended tremendous public resources to coverup the misconduct of individuals and also let the officer remain on the payroll for years so he could fully vest in the pension system and collect lifetime retirement benefits even though he was forbidden from returning to work.
  • To the Division of Pension and Benefits, to allow its Pension Fraud and Abuse Unit to review the propriety of the settlement agreement and any pension awards to the parties involved.

A review of Uniform Crime Reporting data, search data, use-of-force reports, police pursuits and civilian complaints, bodyworn camera footage, and hiring practices did not yield conclusive evidence of discriminatory policing practices, though some areas require interventions and further study.

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