Clark, NJ town paid $400K+ to conceal alleged racist slurs by mayor, police chief

By Riley Yates | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com and S.P. Sullivan | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Two years ago, a whistleblower in Clark Township came forward with explosive allegations: He’d secretly recorded the mayor, the police chief, and a supervisor in internal affairs referring to Blacks with racial slurs.

“Shines.” “Spooks.” The N-word.

Yet Clark officials hid those accusations by preemptively agreeing to pay $400,000 to the whistleblower and his attorney to avoid a lawsuit that would have thrust them into the public eye, an NJ Advance Media investigation has found. Under the settlement, the whistleblower, police Lt. Antonio Manata, turned the recordings over to the township. And Clark allowed him to remain on the payroll without working until he retired at the rank of captain last month with his full pension.

That seemingly kept a lid on the controversy.

But in July 2020, six months after the parties signed the agreement, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office took over Clark’s police department, citing “credible allegations of misconduct” involving its leadership while giving no indication of what they were investigating.

Police Chief Pedro Matos and internal affairs Sgt. Joseph Teston were immediately placed on paid administrative leave, township records show. So was a police captain, Vincent Concina, whom Manata had accused of retaliation.

In seizing control, county prosecutors and the state Attorney General’s Office promised a public report on their findings as racial justice protests over George Floyd’s murder engulfed the nation.

Yet 20 months later, the three suspended officers continue to draw six-figure salaries at a combined cost to taxpayers of $763,000 and counting through March 15, according to township records. And an attorney for Manata charges that Union County prosecutors are retaliating against him by seeking to block him from collecting his pension.

Presented with a summary of NJ Advance Media’s findings, spokespeople for acting state Attorney General Matthew Platkin and Union County Prosecutor William Daniel would not address the lawyer’s claims or say why the probe is taking so long. Instead, they renewed their pledge for a public report.

“We can assure the residents of Clark, the members of the Clark Police Department, and the public at large that the investigation, once completed, will have been comprehensive, thorough, and impartial,” said the statement released by Steven Barnes of the attorney general’s office.

Mayor Sal Bonaccorso, Clark’s longest-serving mayor, denied accusations that he and others used racist language. In November 2020, the Republican was elected to his sixth term in office, running unopposed.

‘A big (expletive) monkey head’

NJ Advance Media obtained copies of a draft of Manata’s lawsuit, which was settled before it was filed; the settlement agreement that kept the tapes a secret; and seven recordings Manata made from November 2018 to July 2019. The recordings depict a small-town police department closely controlled by Bonaccorso, who mixed shop talk with racial slurs.

In two recordings, Bonaccorso allegedly referred to Blacks as “spooks,” and in another, he allegedly used the N-word. Bonaccorso was also allegedly captured saying he would not hire female police officers, calling them “all [expletive] disasters.”

Teston, the internal affairs sergeant, allegedly compared a Black suspect to a “[expletive] animal” with a “big [expletive] monkey head” and said the man’s mugshot reminded him of a photo from National Geographic.

Matos, the police chief, was allegedly caught saying that he wanted to reopen a 2017 bias investigation in which a black puppet was found hanging at the township’s high school. The reason: “to prove that them [expletive] [N-words] did it,” the chief allegedly said.

Matos, 49, and Teston, 36, did not respond to repeated attempts to reach them for comment by phone, email, and letters sent to their home detailing NJ Advance Media’s findings.

In an interview, Bonaccorso said he was “blindsided” by the allegations and that he could not recall using the N-word. He claimed he knew nothing about the recordings, which the settlement shows that Manata surrendered to the township.

Bonaccorso also repeatedly declined a reporter’s offer to play the recordings for him because he would best know his voice.

“I have many, many Black friends in my life, many of them; and employees here and everything else,” said Bonaccorso, 61. “I mean, I’ve been here for 22 years, never had a problem, and all of a sudden this is coming up? I find it offensive. I do.”

A whistleblower accused Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso of using racist and sexist language that was captured on secret recordings. Here, he addresses residents in a still image from a recent video press conference posted by Clark Township.

‘You chase that spook around?’

Manata’s draft lawsuit, prepared by attorney Patrick Toscano Jr. and dated Dec. 4, 2019, identifies the speakers on the recordings and offers descriptions of their conversations.

During one encounter at a busy diner, Bonaccorso was captured using the N-word when listing “things you don’t count on” during a conversation about a faulty furnace at police headquarters, according to the draft suit and a review of the recording.

Four months later, Bonaccorso was meeting with Manata when the mayor asked about a person he’d seen police pursuing that day, the draft suit said.

“You chase that spook around? What spook are you guys chasing around, with a red shirt?” Bonaccorso said on the recording, soon adding: “They was looking for some spook, walking around or something.”

In another encounter, Bonaccorso was discussing renovations at the new police headquarters with officers and township officials, the draft suit said. Talk turned to locker accommodations for women.

“As far as female cops go, I hope there is never any, but I can only take care while I’m here,” said Bonaccorso, Clark’s mayor since 2001. “They are all [expletive] disasters that I’ve seen.”

A ‘ransacked office’

Clark, population 15,500, is one of the least diverse towns in Union County, the Census shows, with 79% of its residents white and just 1.5% Black. Until recently, the 38-member police department did not have a single Black or female police officer, according to an NJ Advance Media review last year of police diversity.

Manata, who is of Portuguese descent, joined the force in 2007 after nearly a decade as a cop in Newark. The draft suit said he was “outspoken” against the racial and gender animus he encountered and began secretly recording what he considered the improper actions of his superiors as early as 2017.

“No one in power in Clark was able to control either defendant Bonaccorso or defendant Matos — it was that simple,” said the draft suit, which charged civil rights and whistleblower act violations, infliction of emotional distress, and conspiracy.

During a brief telephone call recently, Manata declined to comment.

The draft suit claimed Matos and the other officers launched several “bogus” internal affairs investigations, beginning in February 2019, after Manata objected to the way the department was run. One such investigation concerned whether Manata had been candid about where he lived and whether his longtime home property was located in Clark or neighboring Linden, according to the draft suit and Toscano, his attorney, who called the allegation “absurd.”

A 2015 file photo of Clark Police Chief Pedro Matos. Matos and Capt. Vincent Concina (shown in the background) were placed on paid leave in July 2020 after the Union County Prosecutor’s Office took over the department, citing “credible allegations of misconduct” involving its leadership. (Jessica Remo/NJ Advance Media)

The draft suit also claimed that after Manata threatened a lawsuit, the mayor convened a “settlement conference” in November 2019 “to speak about, deal with and settle all issues.” Two days later, on Thanksgiving Day, Matos, Concina, and Teston “ransacked” Manata’s office, “removing ceiling tiles, illegally searching cabinets, and illegally searching his computer,” the draft suit alleged.

NJ Advance Media attempted to reach Concina, 51, by phone, email and a letter sent to his home, but like the others, he did not respond.

The settlement agreement was inked on Jan. 29, 2020, nearly two months after Toscano’s draft lawsuit was dated. Manata, the three officers named as defendants, and the township’s then-business administrator signed the agreement.

Bonaccorso signed the document twice — both as mayor and as a private citizen.

According to the terms, the township admitted no wrongdoing and continued to “deny, dispute, and disclaim” the allegations. Manata received $275,000, and his lawyer Toscano received $125,000 for legal fees.

As a member of the department’s brass, Manata’s salary was about $140,000 a year. For the 25 months he was on paid administrative leave before retiring last month, he made $289,700, according to township records.

Under the settlement, Manata turned over the recordings, the draft lawsuit, and any notes he made, and he agreed that should he breach the agreement’s confidentiality requirements, he would be required to pay back the $275,000. The settlement also required Manata to provide the township with a sworn statement detailing all the materials he was turning over and attesting that he had relinquished his copies.

Clark agreed to halt any pending internal affairs investigations into Manata and allow him to stay on the payroll until he could retire with his full pension.

According to Toscano, the township asked to avoid litigation that would have brought the dispute into the public eye.

“Clark requested a settlement conference before the complaint was filed,” Toscano said. “That’s fact.”

Meeting minutes show that the Clark Council unanimously approved the settlement during a special meeting on Feb. 3, 2020. The minutes recorded no public discussion of what was described as “the insurance settlement of the Manata personnel dispute.”

On Tuesday evening, NJ Advance Media unsuccessfully sought comment from all seven of Clark’s council members.

‘We (expletive) hang the spooks up there’

Clark is no stranger to racially-charged controversy. In June 2020, Bonaccorso was at a Black Lives Matter rally when demonstrators asked him to declare that he was “pro-Black.”

“I am pro-Black for all the good Black people that I know in my life,” Bonaccorso responded, provoking jeers from the crowd. He later took to Facebook to say he had fallen short of what he meant to express and that the “answer is, of course, and unequivocally, yes.”

In January 2017, Clark’s high school girls basketball team was playing Plainfield, a city with a large Black, population when a black puppet was discovered hanging by the neck in a room assigned to Plainfield’s team. In the aftermath, Bonaccorso appeared before Plainfield City Council to apologize to anyone who was hurt and promise a full investigation. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office ultimately concluded that it was unclear whether it was a bias incident.

The recordings allegedly show Bonaccorso and Matos, the police chief, striking far different tones in private.

According to the draft suit, Matos and Manata were going through old evidence in storage in March 2019 when they came upon a box related to that incident.

“I’m thinking about reopening that case,” Matos said.

“Why?” Manata asked.

“Because I’m going to prove that them [expletive] [N-words] did it,” Matos said.

In July 2019, Bonaccorso was leaving the Clark Recreation Center after dealing with a power outage when a police officer noticed ropes hanging from the ceiling, according to the draft suit.

“We [expletive] hang the spooks up there,” Bonaccorso said, as laughter can be heard in the background. The discussion turned to the high school incident, which Bonaccorso called “such [expletive] bull—-.”

He said the worst part of it: “How about I had to go to the Plainfield [expletive] council meeting in front of a room full of them and get up and talk about it?”

In his interview with NJ Advance Media, Bonaccorso said he attended the Plainfield meeting as a gesture of goodwill because he didn’t want anyone to think poorly of his community.

“I have no recall about that conversation whatsoever with Manata or anybody for that matter, because I went there on my own accord,” Bonaccorso said.

Bonaccorso suggested the recordings could have been altered, though he declined to listen to them. He also referred NJ Advance Media to the township’s attorney, Mark Dugan, who reporters provided with a summary of this article’s findings.

“Mayor Bonaccorso does not comment on unattributed or anonymous allegations,” a statement issued by Dugan said. “He does state that it is not his practice to speak in the manner described and that he does not recall doing so.

At right, retired Clark police officer Antonio Manata appears at a 2013 awards ceremony alongside now-suspended Chief Pedro Matos (center) and Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso. (File photo)

“During his tenure as mayor, Mayor Bonaccorso has treated and continues to treat everyone fairly, with justice and with dignity, and has never acted nor been found to have acted in any way in a discriminatory manner.”

‘I can’t verify … anything’

In the interview, Bonaccorso was critical of Manata.

“I wouldn’t really reference anything from him anyhow,” Bonaccorso said. “He’s had problems everywhere he’s worked, so I don’t know what more I can tell you than that.”

Manata said he couldn’t speak when reached by phone, citing the settlement’s confidentiality requirements.

“I can’t verify or confirm or deny anything that is on any recordings,” Manata said. “My settlement agreement is very clear.”

Though Manata had been on paid leave since Jan. 29, 2020, his time on the payroll ended on Feb. 28 of this year, when he qualified for retirement after 25 years of service.

But Union County prosecutors are now seeking to prevent him from collecting his pension, according to Valerie Palma DeLuisi, another attorney representing Manata.

DeLuisi said the state pension board informed Manata that he would not receive his first pension payment as scheduled on April 1, given a pending internal affairs probe the prosecutor’s office is conducting that she said was unjustified.

She said the matter involves alleged departmental rule violations, which she would not detail. But she said they do not involve accusations of criminal behavior or other serious misconduct.

”I believe the prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into my client with impure motives,” DeLuisi said. “And that they are intentionally delaying the conclusion of the investigation into my client to prevent him from receiving the pension he rightfully earned.”

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