The sweeping investigation into an allegedly unauthorized trip taken by school board member Emanuel Capers included review of his voting records and a visit to a property owned by his parents on Sherwood Avenue.
Capers, who has called the investigation into his Arizona trip a “witch-hunt,” said the investigators were not authorized to look into his voting records or check his residency.
“All these things were beyond the scope of the investigation. This was a setup from the beginning. It was really an investigation to frame me up,” said Capers last week. He said his tough questions relating to transportation and security prior to the trip earned him the ire of James Smith, head of security at the district.
Smith, who conducted the investigation, is in charge of transportation, internal investigations, and security at the district.
School board president Oshin Castillo and superintendent Eileen Shafer said the district’s investigation was limited to just the Arizona trip.
“The investigation was to look into the trip to Arizona,” said Shafer on Thursday.
“This investigation was only on Arizona. Nothing else. We did not approve anything else beyond that,” said Castillo in a separate interview on Thursday.
Some school board members were surprised to learn about the broad nature of the investigation.
“That’s news to me,” said school board member Flavio Rivera when told investigators had visited the Passaic County Superintendent of Elections Office to obtain what’s called a “voter profile” of Capers.
A voter profile includes information such as date of birth, residence, party affiliation, and whether an individual voted in different elections over the years. Passaic County officials confirmed that one investigator submitted a request seeking Capers’ voter profile on Mar. 5, 2018.
“It’s a slippery slope. It could happen to any board member,” said school board member Kenneth Simmons.
Capers said investigators visited his parents’ home on Sherwood Avenue. He is registered to vote out of a Sherwood Avenue address, according to Passaic County government records.
One claim that Capers made has been disputed. He said a pair of investigators visited a Bergen County property jointly owned by him and his wife. He claimed to have surveillance footage of investigators visiting the property. Last week he could not produce the footage when the Paterson Times requested a copy for verification.
When told investigators may not have visited the Englewood address, Capers said, “Then they never did. It’s probably a video of somebody. I probably was mistaken.”
Capers has called for disciplinary actions against Smith for going beyond the scope of the investigation.
“There definitely has to be personnel action. For employees to come after board members like this is totally not [acceptable],” said Capers.
Smith said the Arizona trip matter is now “an ongoing investigation with the state.” His investigation report was forwarded to the New Jersey Department of Education. His report provided to board members in late March did not make mention of the voter records review or residency check.
Smith said those pieces of the investigation were not relevant enough to warrant mention in his report.
“Everything I did was proper,” said Smith when told Capers has called for disciplinary actions. “I didn’t do anything wrong, unlike him.”
Shafer declined to comment on the possibility of disciplinary actions against Smith.
Smith said Capers is doing what he had warned in his report which was attacking the investigator. He sought protection from the Passaic County superintendent of schools against “harassment and intimidation” from Capers in his report. Smith questioned Capers’ motives in raising questions about the scope of the investigation.
“All the other stuff he is saying is smoke screen to cover what he really did. It’s subterfuge, it’s smoke screen to cover up that he went on an unauthorized trip paid for by a [potential] vendor,” said Smith. “When you go into an investigation and other things are brought up you are obligated to investigate it.”
Capers received a free trip to the Effective Schools Conference that ran from Feb. 20-23, 2018 at the Scottsdale Plaza Resort in Paradise Valley courtesy of Woz U. Estimated value of the trip is $2,455. He went on the trip despite words of caution on accepting trips from potential vendors from the superintendent.
Both men have exchanged tough words over the investigation. Capers blames Smith and Castillo for initiating the investigation.
“Those two were in cahoots with each other,” said Capers. He said the investigation was aimed to embarrass and tarnish his reputation in the city.
“Absolutely not,” replied Castillo when told of Capers’ allegation.
Capers said no actions should be taken against the two investigators or the security guard who snapped a picture of him entering the airport.
A district security guard dropped him off to the airport for the trip. He captured a photo of Capers walking into the terminal. Some school board members were disturbed by the security guard’s airport picture and expressed their displeasure to the superintendent in a closed-door meeting.
Security guards can no longer take pictures of school board members in the course of providing transportation or dropping off packages to their homes, according to district officials.
“I don’t tolerate any investigations by the board,” said longtime school board member Jonathan Hodges. “That could be a device to intimidate board members who are asking questions that those people do not want to answer.”
Hodges said internal investigations also places district employees, who conduct the investigations, at risk. There’s a better way to handle allegations of improper conduct by a school board member, he said.
“You file ethics charges,” said Hodges. “You don’t expend district resources to investigate board members.”