City workers in Paterson have been captured on video working at the mayor's private home, sparking questions about who is paying for that work in the cash-strapped city.
On one occasion, two men identified as city employees are shown on video on a Saturday carrying a large beer cooler into Mayor Jose Torres’s home. One of the men seen carrying the cooler into Torres’s house was on the clock while he was doing that job, city records show.
On other occasions, men identified as Paterson workers are seen helping the mayor move boxes, carrying tools into his house, washing his scooter and removing what appears to be construction debris.
The workers at times can be seen in uniform or using city vehicles. Two workers tell the I-Team that the mayor also asked them to perform construction work on nights and weekends at a planned business on East 15th Street for a relative of the mayor.
In other cases, workers were paid overtime on the same days they were filmed doing tasks at the mayor’s house. But I-Team is still waiting for records detailing the exact hours they worked for the city those same days.
Former federal prosecutor Robert Ray reviewed the videos for the I-Team and offered this opinion: "That highest ranking official in that city has the ability to call on favors and to get people in government to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do,” Ray said. “That’s a misuse of power. It’s not only a question of use of government resources and taxpayer money. But it’s an abuse of power.”
New Jersey local government ethics rules state: “No local government officer or employee shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for himself or others."
Torres declined the I-Team’s request for an interview, writing in an email: “Please be advised that at no time has any city employee, on city time, or overtime, or paid with taxpayer dollars, ever performed work for me at my home, or anywhere else.”
In a Paterson Press newspaper report about the I-Team’s story, Torres told the newspaper that in one case, one or two city employees worked at his property to build four bookshelves in his daughter’s bedroom in the past year.
He said the job was done on the employees’ own time, and he paid for the supplies and gave the employees $50 for the work.
Several of the employees seen on the tapes spoke with the I-Team. They said they did the work as personal favors for Torres on their own time. In a few cases, the city workers said Torres paid them out of his own pocket for the private jobs they did for him.
The videos were taken by private investigator Harry Melber, who was hired by a developer who was in a permit dispute with the city. For about a year on and off beginning in November 2014, Melber followed Torres and filmed the mayor both at the mayor’s home and the 15th Street strip mall.
One of the city workers described the 15th Street business construction as a “big job” that included electrical and carpentry work. The worker said he was not paid and treated the job as a social occasion with the mayor and fellow public works employees. He said the mayor would sometimes bring the workers free beer.
Another worker tells the I-Team Torres paid him with his own money.
The mayor’s brother, Samuel Torres, owns a liquor store right near the 15th Street construction site. Samuel Torres told the I-Team the location was intended to be a beer warehouse for his own son. Samuel Torres said his brother the mayor was not involved in the project. But two workers said the mayor personally called them to do the work on nights and weekends.
Surveillance video also shows Torres on several occasions at the warehouse site.
On several occasions, city trucks are on tape coming and going from East 15th Street site.
Other instances where employees were shown on Melber’s surveillance video include:
• One worker, Jorge Makdissi, seen at the mayor’s house five times in as many months. On two of those days, records show the city was billed for extra hours. The I-Team is still waiting for records showing exactly what hours he worked. By phone, Makdissi told the I-Team work listed on his time sheets is only for city business. He said the mayor paid him out of his pocket for personal work.
• On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend last year, two men identified as city workers are shown carrying a cooler of beer into the mayor’s house. One of the men, Tim Hanlon, told the I-Team he did several hours of work that day to prepare for a party the mayor was having that weekend. Records show Hanlon clocked in at 5:55 that morning and clocked out at 2 in the afternoon. But t 11:31, video shows him lugging this beer cooler into the mayor’s house. Hanlon said his best recollection is he was off the clock that morning and did not bill taxpayers. He said it’s possible a supervisor billed time on his behalf, or that maybe he did city work at another time that day.
• On April 18, city workers are shown picking up what appears to be construction debris and other trash from the mayor’s home. Past and current city officials tell the I-Team ordinary citizens don’t get that kind of service; they would have to pay a private company for such a job.
• On two days in April, a city mechanic is seen washing Torres’s scooter and working on his car. He says he did the work on his own time and the mayor covered expenses and paid him out of pocket for the work. He said mayor is an old friend, and he was his mechanic before he became the mayor.
• On August 1, four city workers are seen helping the Mayor for several hours moving boxes at the mayor’s home and at a storage facility. One worker said the Mayor asked workers to help him with a move for his daughter. Records show one of the workers – Jeffrey Williams – worked 25 hours straight before going to the mayor’s house to volunteer to help with the move. Williams said he was doing the mayor a favor.
Questions about the employees seen at the mayor’s home come amid a budget crisis in Paterson. At recent city council meetings, angry residents have complained about rising taxes and failing city services.
The city council finally passed a budget this week after an earlier budget rejection forced employees to stay home for a day without pay, and closed Paterson’s libraries, senior services and after-school recreation programs.
Paterson city council members have already called for county and state prosecutors to investigate whether the mayor has used city workers improperly.