I believe 2011 to have been the most eventful year yet for MWatch. Our first post was December 30, 2008. The brainchild of two ardent Democrats and a not-at-all reticent Republican, we never envisioned the site evolving into what it is today. We simply wanted to be watchdogs, purveyors of information on the backroom deals that were and still are prevalent in the county, reporters of the news that our local media ignored. For too long the Daily Journal had an editor too afraid of pissing off subscribers and advertisers to print controversial stories. The Press of Atlantic City was too interested in the shore counties to pay Cumberland much attention. And the News of Cumberland County was so beholden tot he entrenched party that they, like the proverbial monkeys, could see, hear nor speak no evil.
We never thought the site would provoke a movement in county politics. We spawned an independent party that challenged the entrenched – to little avail due to the nature of partisan politics. But through some missteps, we were the catalyst of the truth behind Lou Magazzu’s fake NACo PAC. We became a thorn in the side of the power brokers, and as a result I would like to think that certain nefarious practices have become less prevalent. Or maybe they just became better at hiding them.
The year brought changes – from a change in focus to fine-tuning our reporting, and eventually a name change when we realized our job is not yet finished.
By the beginning of 2011, the Daily Journal changed their tune, openly rebuking the same candidates that used to fall under their editorial protection.The topic was the free health care that part-time employees received, on the backs of the taxpayers. MWatch had long advocated that these perks, and more be dropped from part-time and appointed positions. We held that it was long-time due for government practices to mirror the private sector.
Jane Jannarone kicked off 2011, still bitter over the spilt milk of her party’s losses in the 2010 election. The public was sick and tired of negative campaigning, but she didn’t hear the message. She headed a campaign of character assassination of a person that was not even a candidate. MWatch was on the job, and the slander campaign quietly receded as bi-partisan public opinion turned on the people spewing offal out of hatred.
In April of this year, we reported on the purloined petition of Pab Sungenis.It turns out that somebody at the local Democratic convention stole all of the signature sheets of Pab’s petition. It was too late in the game for Pab to go out and collect the signature’s again – and hence a potential candidate that did not meet the local party mold was prevented from participating in the electoral process. Little did we know that this was just the tip of the iceberg of electoral impropriety in the county.
In June it was announced that Lou Magazzu would be stepping down as the chair of the CCDO. In his place two George Norcross/Stephen Sweeney lackeys were appointed. Bob Balicki and Doug Long took over, both with scads of conflicts that should have prevented them from being this involved in partisan politics. It was reported to usfrom various sources that Senator Stephen Sweeney attended the meeting where Lou tended his resignation, to ensure that it happened.
Pab Sungenis continued to question the antics of those within his own party, and woke up one day to find a dead rat was left on his front door step.
In June we reported on a voting machine malfunction. On June 22, we raised the specter of voting machine fraud. It wasn’t too long afterward that a judge apparently concurred, after the computer controlling said machine was tampered with, after being requested but before being handed over to an investigator. Critical files and logs were deleted, and to this date nobody has been held accountable.
July 4th – Independence Day! I posted a photo that was sent to me by a woman that had admitted to me, and proved, that she had an affair of sorts with Lou Magazzu that dated back years. In fact, it pre-dated this website. She forwarded emails, text messages and many photographs. This was unsolicited by anybody affiliated with the website.
When she first contacted me, I believe it was January of 2011, I was reluctant to engage in any dialogue. Suspicious of being set-up, I answered her many questions with only information that was public knowledge, and tried to figure out if she was for real, or someone working on Lou’s behalf to get information or to cause me to publish something that would be actionable.
Well, photos don’t lie. And Exif information embedded in digital images is not easy to tamper with. Well, a firestorm soon ensued. I posted more and more fo the images, as well as excerpts of the emails and text messages proving ongoing infidelity. The local media refused to pick up on the story – that is until Magazzu’s attorney sent a cease and desist letter.
The short story is that the negative publicity forced Lou into private sector employment. In my naivete, I believed that we had done our job. I thought the inside deals, the pay-to-play, and the questionable campaign tactics would stop. I thought that we had a chance at fair play in the county, and some form of bipartisanship at the local level.
It was during this fiasco, before Lou resigned, amidst more and diverse provocative pictures appearing that we reported on the Comtec bid, and how the lowest bidder on a county project was excluded to make room for a Norcross affiliated company in Cherry Hill to get the job. This was the most blatant case yet, at least that we uncovered, of cronyism. Comtec sued, and won, as we reported later in the year. Lou or no Lou, it was apparent that the cancer had spread deep into major departments in the county. I had no idea just how deep…
In late July it was announced that Jannarone who opted out of the race after winning the primary was to be replaced by Tony Surace. This was an ingenious move by the CCDO, bringing in the only person that could beat the CCRRO candidate Jody Farabella. Carol Musso had been brought in to fill Dunkin’s vacancy. Rumors had it that Dunkins was fed up with the politics, many of which rubbed his social conscience wrong. The politics didn’t rub him the wrong way for too long, however – he was quick to jump in and ask to fill Lou’s vacated spot. How much of this was at the direction of county leadership is anyone’s guess.
At the end of July we brought up the issue of the dusty and unused Cumberland County Code of Ethics. The last time it had been touched was when the freeholders approved changes int he language to allow Lou to campaign for funds for his failed NACo campaign. Prior to the change, this would have been considered a conflict of interest – for an elected official to use their position to solicit funds from campaign donors for a private position.
Our beef with the code this time around is that certain requirements had been ignored. For instance, a panel comprised of elected officials and private citizens was to be assembled to determine if actions happening at a county level were within the confines of the ethical requirements of the law.
On July 25 we published an internal email alluding to cover-up. Certain parties had requested information on Lou Magazzu’s county issued Blackberry, the same one featured in certain photographs, and used to send certain text messages. The county basically ignored the OPRA request.
Finally, on July 27, 2011 I guess Lou had had enough of us asking too many questions. I published the letter from his attorney to cease and desist. Then all hell broke out. The next morning my house was a media circus. My cell phone never stopped ringing. The CCRRO chairman received a phone call from the Sydney Herald (yes, Australia), we had news vans parked in front of the house, Fox News reporting from our front porch. As soon as I printed the news of Lou’s threatening legal action, the AP picked up the story that had festered for a month. Shortly after, Lou tendered his resignation.
I received probably a hundred congratulatory phone calls, from senators down to public employees. Most of the praise came from Lou’s own party, people that had been used and tossed aside in his rise to power. People that felt they had been used like pawns, and discarded in his own personal game of chess. The party heads, Balicki and Long began a campaign defending Lou, attempting to create a martyr. Of course Balicki would rush to his side; Lou was responsible for giving Balicki a $100K a year job. And Long is a Camden lackey, knowing nothing about Cumberland County other than it is a source for jobs for the Camden machine.
While the party heads were weaving a fairytale, MWatch continued on, seeking new horizons. Our August reports were rife with stories on the corruption deep within the county. We asked the question, “Should the county be in the nursing home business?” Guest writer Haystacks Calhoun addressed the election process and questioned why the CCDO was blatantly bypassing their own rules.
We made public information on the ongoing investigation into impropriety at the Manor and how a politically connected Realtor from Jane Jannarone’s business used a county job as a front for their real estate transactions. We reported on how time clocks and time sheets had been manipulated on a regular basis, in just about every department. It just kept on getting more and more embarrassing for the party on power for three decades to see, on an almost daily basis, proof of their own incompetence and corruption.
August became September, and lead led to new lead. We uncovered that the same Manor employee had used her former position at another nursing home to have herself written into the will of a dying patient. We publicized that Jack Surrency, County Health Administrator, was deemed by the state unqualified for the position. This determination cost the county matching funds for the salary. We reported that the county ignored the Sunshine Law by holding a Sept. 13 meeting without proper notice. We continued to harp on the county hiring friends that resided out of the county rather than hiring qualified candidates that resided locally.
We reported on ongoing problems at the OEM 911 Call Center, and how the County Manor went from a profitable institution to “money-loser” under Lou’s regime. To this day, not one freeholder or county financial employee can answer certain questions about where the money in the Manor is going. It is the sole revenue-making entity, and our suspicions have always been that the money has been funneled and mingled with other funds so that the profligate spending spree of the Lou Magazzu regime could continue unabated. That regime is still in place, despite his absence.
October brought us to a whole new level of campaign antics. Judge Krell apparently concurred with our opinion that the erasure of files on a suspect computer was too coincidental to be an accident. The CCDO candidates hired an outside gun to assist them with their absentee ballot application drive. Up until this year, the absentee ballot drives concentrated in the 3rd Legislative District areas, and were headed by union hacks and party operative Todd Edwards. Typically hundreds of ballot applications would be handed in.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with these initiatives. And typically, there would be rejected applications do to one reason or another. However, 2011 saw a concerted effort to a magnitude never witnessed locally. An Atlantic City operative was brought in to handle the 1st Distort areas. We were the first to report, and noted that it was highly suspicious that 10% of the applications had been rejected.
We continued to report on the campaign financing of the candidates, showing a huge disparity between local contributions as opposed to huge amounts of money funding the election from out of the county. In the end, the three CCDO candidates handily took the election, pretty much as predicted. A dead person could run on the CCDO slate and still win office. However, I must take a little pride and all of the credit for the CCDO losing control of the freeholder board, if only for a year. Mary Gruccio ran for the slot left empty by Lou Magazzu’s premature demise from political life. That slot was open for one reason, and only one reason – this website reported what no other local news source wanted to touch. The local media were hell-bent on protecting their icon, and only broke down when Lou made a critical misstep.
Apparently by December, still stewing from the loss of control, Doug Long’s law office targeted this website and another for reporting on what we considered unethical electoral activity. Slapped with a civil SLAPP lawsuit, their hope was that we would be silenced.
The other site took one tact, which was to not report on anything to with the lawsuit or the people involved. Our tact at MWatch was the opposite – full transparency. People need to know that what we have stated all along is true. You don’t dare speak against the powers that be in this county or else you WILL be made an example of.
I have heard rumblings, but nothing concrete. We won the initial round in Cumberland County Superior Court when we stood in front of the assignment judge. The case was referred to Gloucester County, and as it stands today, we appear in Court on January 27, 2012. Our faithful readers have helped me raise half of the $5,000 retainer for defense.
The county is in the process of soliciting bids for the sale of the Manor, refusing to delve any further into the questions concerning the allocation or mis-allocation of funds, the replacement of lost PEER funding, and other open questions. The library is next on the chopping block, and the county is paying hundreds of thousands to outside attorneys for various reasons, including several federal lawsuits against the OEM/911 Call Center and EEOC investigations. We are still waiting patiently for even one “real” media outlet to pick up on the latter.
And on this note I bid everyone a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. This is likely the last news post of the year, unless anything unexpected or exciting happens.