TRENTON – The president of the Elizabeth School Board, a city employee, and the husband of the head of custodians for the Elizabeth School District were arrested this morning and charged with defrauding the Elizabeth School District’s free lunch program, Attorney General Paula T. Dow announced. The program provides free and low-cost nutritious lunches for students who cannot otherwise afford them.
Marie L. Munn, 46, the president of Elizabeth’s school board; Peter W. Abitanto, 42, husband of the head of custodians for the Elizabeth School District; and Angela Lucio, 35, an Elizabeth city employee who is the ex-wife of a principal in the Elizabeth School District, were charged with third-degree theft by deception and third-degree tampering with public records or information.
“The good news is, these are only third degree offenses,” said Munn’s attorney, Anthony J. Fusco Jr. “And she’s already made restitution, so we’ll see what happens.” Crimes of the third degree are punishable by one to five years in prison.
Fusco said he expected to be in touch with the state Attorney General’s office on Tuesday.
According to Criminal Justice Director Stephen J. Taylor, Munn, Abitanto and Lucio each allegedly falsified information on applications for the Elizabeth Public Schools Free and Reduced Price School Meals Program, which led to the theft of a total of more than $7,000 in free or low-cost lunches. All three were arrested early this morning at their homes by detectives of the New Jersey State Police Official Corruption North Unit. They were processed at the State Police Newark Station and released.
“It is deeply troubling that the president of the Elizabeth School Board and the spouses of two other high-level district officials were allegedly stealing from a program intended to ensure that disadvantaged children get the nutritious lunches that they need to thrive in school,” said Dow. “We will not tolerate this type of abuse of a publicly funded assistance program by school district insiders.”
“We allege that the three individuals charged today exploited the federally subsidized school lunch program by lying about their family incomes to obtain free lunches for their children,” said Taylor. “Our investigation into fraud in this program is ongoing.”
The state alleges that on five occasions from 2006 to 2011, Munn falsified information on school lunch applications which resulted in the theft of $3,946 worth of free lunches for her two children. For example, on at least one application, Munn allegedly falsified her weekly income and omitted her husband’s salary completely.
Munn returned $2,682.50 to the district, according to lawyer Sean M. Pena, an associate of Fusco. Through her attorney, Munn issued a statement last week saying that she “would never intentionally defraud the district or other tax payers” and that she “understood the form to be nothing more than administrative paperwork and not an application for free or reduced lunch.”
Munn excluded her husband’s wages from the form at his request, according to that statement. She “believed the exclusion of her husband’s wages to be of no consequence because [she] was certain her son would not qualify for free or reduced lunch because of her salary alone.”
The state also alleges that by falsifying applications from 2006 to 2011 for free lunches, Abitanto allegedly wrongfully obtained $2,169 worth of free lunches for his child. An investigation determined that Abitanto allegedly falsified his salary information.
Lastly, the state alleges that on three occasions from 2008 to 2011, Lucio falsified applications and wrongfully obtained $899 worth of free lunches for her two children.
If found guilty, each faces up to five years in state prison and a $15,000 fine.
The investigation was launched by the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau after an article in The Star-Ledger alleged that the children of officials in the Elizabeth school district were improperly participating in the federally subsidized school lunch program despite household incomes that exceeded the limits for eligibility.
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