Real JC prevails in OPRA lawsuit against Fulop Admin. over Waterfront Project docs

Real Jersey City prevailed in a OPRA lawsuit against the Fulop Administration over documents withheld related to CDBG funds awarded to The Waterfront Project.

Left to Right: Carmen Gandulla, Rebecca Symes, and Dinah Hendon.

It won’t get the headlines like Kushner Companies, but Real Jersey City also prevailed in a Open Public Records Act (OPRA) lawsuit against the Fulop Administration. In this case, it was over documents withheld from disclosure related to Community Development Block Grants (CBDG) awarded to The Waterfront Project (WFP).

Background on Lawsuit

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: WFP is a nonprofit organization with close ties to Dixon Advisory USA (read more here). The following is a timeline of the public records dispute with the Fulop Administration.

On March 19, 2019, an OPRA request was submitted asking for “all documentation submitted by The Waterfront Project from 1-1-13 to 3-15-19 related to Community Development Block Grants” and “all documentation related to the awarding of Community Development Block Grants to The Waterfront Project from 1-1-13 to 3-15-19.”

On April 15, 2019, the Fulop Administration provided copies of “City of Jersey City’s Consolidated Plan PY 2018 Annual Action Plan Year Four” and “City of Jersey City FY 2015 – 2019 Five Year Consolidated Plan and 2015 Annual Action Plan” – both of which were clearly not responsive to the OPRA request upon immediate review.

On April 23, 2019, an email was sent to the city noting that the “2015-2019 Consolidated Plan makes no mention of The Waterfront Project,” and that the “2018 Annual Action Plan does make reference to The Waterfront Project – which received $40,000 for housing counseling.”

Additionally, it was noted that WFP was clearly awarded some funding, yet there was no corresponding documentation provided by the Division of Community Development.

On April 26, 2019, the city produced three subgrantee agreements showing that WFP has received at least $95,000 in grants over three years. The subgrantee agreements also reference project progress reports and quarterly activity reports, yet none of those documents were provided – despite diplomatic efforts through the city clerk.

The records dispute was headed to Hudson County Superior Court after Real Jersey City, represented by the Law Offices of Walter M. Luers, LLC, filed an OPRA complaint in June. Ultimately, on July 20, 2019, the city began releasing a plethora of records – highlighting how disingenuous, bordering on deliberate, the initial responsive records were.

Upon review of the documents released, the complaint was settled shortly thereafter.

Records embarrassing for Fulop Administration, Waterfront Project

It wouldn’t be surprising if Carmen Gandulla, the Director of Community Development for the Fulop Administration, was deliberately withholding responsive records to the OPRA request. That’s because her office not only failed to turn over the proper documents to the Law Dept./Clerk’s Office, twice, but some of the documentation is likely a source of embarrassment.

For example, despite Elizabeth Caraballo, the former executive director of WFP, leaving the nonprofit in August 2016, Gandulla directed CDBG award letters for WFP to Caraballo in 2017 ($30,000) & 2018 ($50,000). Unless reviewing documents related to CDBG funding before signing isn’t necessary, that’s not a good look.

Even more embarrassing are some of the activity reports submitted by Caraballo’s successor, Dinah Hendon, who was hired by Mayor Steven Fulop as director of the Office of Housing Code Enforcement in July 2018. For example, from January 2018 to March 2018, they provided assistance to a whopping 5 clients with a total of 9 individual family members in their household – one of which was a “success story” that resulted in a reduced rent increase for two roommates.

While some may find that type of success to be heartwarming, during that same period the U.S. Masters Residential Property Fund – a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) managed by Dixon Advisory USA (DIXON), a major supporter to WFP – filed 19 complaints in Landlord-Tenant Court. Ironically, later that year Hendon honored Dixon Leasing at WFP’s annual Justice for All fundraiser.

Sadly, that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to issues with WFP – issues that begin to raise questions about both the value & integrity of the nonprofit’s operation.

Of note, after leaving the WFP to work for the Fulop Administration, Hendon was replaced by Rebecca Symes – who served as general counsel for Dixon from 2013-2017 before unsuccessfully running for the Ward E seat on the Jersey City Council. A political mailer sent citywide last week blamed Symes for the evictions of “thousands” of Jersey City residents.

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