Ancient History?

Last week, the Trentonian – the only one of the two remaining daily newspapers in town reporting Trenton non-sports news on a regular basis, published a kind of non-story story. The April 18 story by David Foster reported on the news that four City Council candidates – At-Large candidates Elvin Montero and Rachel Cogsville-Lattimer,  East Ward aspirant Taiwanda Terry-Wilson, and South Ward candidate Jenna Kettenburg – had made campaign-to-campaign donations totaling $6600 to a fifth, current Council President and West Ward rep Zachary Chester.

According to Mr. Foster’s article, Councilmember Chester explained that the pooled funds would pay for a Get Out The Vote, as of today unannounced, close to the May 8 election. On the basis of information in the article, there appears to be nothing wrong or suspicious about the funds transfer, or the plans for the event. Mr. Foster found out about the transfers from campaign finance reports submitted by each candidate to the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). It’s public information, properly disclosed.

Mr. Foster quoted South Ward Councilmember George Muschal, against whom Ms. Kettenburg is running, voicing his suspicions that there were some unspecified ulterior motives at work. “There has to be something in it for the people involved in it. You don’t have to have blinders to see what they’re gonna do if they get on. It’s a bad start,” he said to Mr. Foster. However, what that “something” could be remained unspoken by Muschal, and unsuggested by Foster. The rest of the April 18 article reported on the contents of the ELEC reports of all five candidates, discussing amounts raised and naming some of their donors.

So, as I said above, pretty much a non-story.

However, on the day the article was released, there was some chatter on social media that seemed to indicate that many people in Trenton have either never heard, or have forgotten, a story involving Mr. Chester going back to 2012. When he ran for re-election in 2014, no one mentioned it, not even his opponent. Perhaps it wasn’t relevant, then. Perhaps voters considered it ancient history.

Maybe it is. I think, though, that for this election there is legitimate reason to discuss it.

I speak of the crime of embezzlement committed by Mr. Chester’s now ex-wife.  In 2012 Alysia Welch-Chester was the Chair of the Trenton Democratic Committee. Mr. Chester served on the Committee as an elected District Representative from the Hiltonia neighborhood, along with his wife. At the time I was the parliamentarian for the committee. In June of that year, other members of the committee discovered that a sizeable amount of money was missing from their bank account. Available evidence pointed to Ms. Chester.

The following month, in the words of a newspaper account of the time, Ms. Chester “agreed to enter a pretrial intervention program on Thursday after being charged with stealing from the political organization.” The terms of that program were 200 hours of community service, maintenance of fulltime employment, 6 months of supervision, and payment of court fees, per the Trenton Times article by Jenna Pizzi. As part of that deal, “Welch-Chester paid $6,249 in restitution to the committee yesterday and turned over keys to the committee’s mailbox and storage unit.”

As one could imagine, this incident rattled the Trenton Democratic Committee. A new slate of officers was elected. I agreed to serve as Treasurer to help get the finances of the organization back in order. I agreed to do so on a forward basis only. The books and records for the previous several years were frankly a mess. The Committee hadn’t filed a quarterly ELEC report since I had filed the last one from a previous stint as Treasurer in 2007.I served as Treasurer from July 2012 until October 2013, resigning due to work commitments. In that time, I moved the Committee’s financial records to Quickbooks, and filed the quarterly reports for that period, up until the period ending September 2013.

I mention this in order to provide some context to these following statements:

I have seen, in detail, all the items and their amounts, that Ms. Welch-Chester stole from the Trenton Democratic Committee. I could not believe, and still cannot believe, that her behavior could have gone on as long as it did without the knowledge, or at best suspicion, of her husband, Councilmember Zac Chester. The only two explanations that I could come up with then, and now, is that: 1) he knew what she was doing, and stayed silent. Or, 2) he remained entirely oblivious to what was being done by his wife.

To be clear, I never thought that Mr. Chester was involved in Mrs. Chester’s embezzlement, then or now. But, after excluding that possibility, the remaining two alternative scenarios surely didn’t make him look good.

In the Spring of 2014, as I mentioned above, Mr. Chester ran for and won his re-election, and was elected to serve as Council President for the next four years. The record of his wife as Municipal Democratic Chair, and the circumstances of her departure never came up during that election. It truly was ancient history to voters, even though the events were barely two years old.

Why bring this up now?

Because in early 2016, it was announced that the City of Trenton’s payroll services vendor had embezzled nearly $5 Million Dollars in taxpayer money, over a period of at least several months over the previous year. And Zachary Chester’s actions – and inactions – before, during, and after this theft are eerily similar to his actions and inactions during the time of his wife’s embezzlement.

During the months in early 2016 as this theft developed as a huge local news story, City officials – including Mr. Chester – shared very little information about the circumstances of the theft. What meager information they did share was incomplete and often conflicted with facts as revealed by the publicly available evidence. As Chief Executive of the City of Trenton, Mayor Eric Jackson was the public face of the Administration’s dissembling. And, as President of City Council, Zachary Chester participated in what amounted to a cover-up.

There are relatively few overt and public statements made by Mr. Chester that attest to this. On February 19, 2016, feigning ignorance, he told Philadelphia TV WPVI reporter Nora Muchanic, ““Not knowing what the amount is, whether it’s a million (dollars), $800,000, that’s a million or $800,000 that we don’t have in our budget.” That explanation lost all credibility when it later came out that on that very same day the City filed a lawsuit in federal court against the payroll vendor and its owner. That complaint clearly stated that the loss to the city wasn’t “a million or $800,000” but closer to five million dollars. That complaint could not been filed without the prior knowledge and approval of the Mayor and Council, over which Chester presided.

Mr. Chester’s on-camera comment can only have been meant to dissemble and dismiss the crime as far less significant than it was, and less significant than he surely knew it was.

For several months before the discovery of the theft, there were multiple warnings and notices sent by both the federal Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and NJ State Taxation to the City, which were summarized in the Trenton Times by reporter Cristina Rojas, based on documents released by the City to me in response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request. During the same month that the City received no fewer than five urgent notices from the IRS, Chester’s Council actually renewed the contract with the payroll service.

Remember, City Council is supposed to review all check registers of payments made by the City, as well as review important correspondence to the City. Did Council fail in their obligations to oversee the Administration’s operations during the time it was being robbed blind? We don’t know, but from all available evidence, it doesn’t look good.

In the period after the discovery of the theft, basically from January 2016 to the present time, we have seen nothing public from the City to indicate that whatever failures led to the theft of $5 Million Dollars, they were being fixed. The Mayor made no announcements, and City Council convened no hearings or investigations to show that action was being taken. A year later, Mayor Jackson made some vague statements about administrative and procedural changes.

But as of today, there still has been No News or information about how the City intended to prevent future similar robberies. It’s as if this incident is Ancient History, even though it’s only been two years since the Great Payroll Heist.

As for Mr, Chester’s role as President of City Council – before, during, and after the Great Heist – I can only think of two likely scenarios: 1) he knew, or had an idea, that something was wonky with the City’s tax payments, based on hearing about or seeing any of the tax warning notices; but did nothing about it. Or, 2) he remained entirely oblivious to what was going on for months.

Again, just as I have never had any reason to believe that Mr. Chester or any other city official or employee was involved in the payroll tax embezzlement, the other two remaining scenarios do not make him look good. At all.

And that’s why I now bring up the crime committed by his ex-wife six years ago. Because his behavior in his personal life in 2012 – likely either a knowing detachment, or innocent obliviousness – was the same behavior he exhibited in his public life in 2015 and 2016.

And this behavior is something that Trenton cannot afford for another four years. Zachary Chester does not deserve another term on City Council.

Because all this is NOT Ancient History. It’s Trenton’s future we are talking about.

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