TRENTON – Former Elizabeth Board of Education member John Donoso, Board Attorney Kirk Nelson, and outside board counsel Frank Capece were charged Tuesday with covering up a false application filed by Donoso’s wife for the federally funded free lunch program, Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa announced. The wife, Olga Oviedo-Arevalo, was charged with filing several false applications as a result of an investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice and the New Jersey State Police.
“I don’t know which is more disturbing, a school board member and his wife allegedly stealing from a school lunch program for disadvantaged students, or two attorneys allegedly tampering with the records of the public body that they serve to thwart a criminal investigation,” said Chiesa, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has previously been politically allied with Elizabeth school board leaders. “Corruption is never to be taken lightly – not at any level – and we intend to make perfectly plain that the defendants’ alleged conduct is nothing short of criminal.”
Oviedo-Arevalo allegedly filed false applications for the district’s federally funded free or reduced lunch program for her son for three school years, 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11, listing only income of $13,000 ($250 per week) for herself and no income for Donoso, when in fact they had a household income of more than $50,000 for each of those years. As a result of those applications, the son allegedly received approximately $1,700 in free lunches. In addition, Oviedo-Arevalo allegedly filed a false application for the 2011-2012 school year for her son and daughter that listed only a fraction of the income Donoso earned. This is the application that was the subject of the alleged cover-up.
After the Star-Ledger published an article in August 2011 about former Elizabeth Board of Education President Marie L. Munn and others in the district allegedly filing false free school lunch applications – allegations which led to Munn and others being charged by the Division of Criminal Justice – Donoso allegedly approached Capece and Nelson to say that his wife had not accurately filled out their school lunch application for the 2011-12 school year and they wanted to pay for their children’s lunches. He allegedly told the two attorneys that he wanted them to fix it so he would not end up like Munn.
In response to Donoso and after a subpoena was served upon the Board of Education in August 2011 for all school lunch applications filed from 2006 through 2011, Capece and Nelson allegedly arranged for the Donoso/Oviedo-Arevalo 2011-2012 application to be pulled from the district’s official records. As a result, the application was not turned over to the Division of Criminal Justice when the Board of Education responded to the subpoena. Afterward, Capece and Nelson allegedly arranged for the application to be put back into district files. The couple’s children were also switched from free to paid status in the computer system for the National School Lunch Program.
“At Donoso’s behest, these two attorneys, who had a duty to uphold the law and honestly serve the Board of Education, allegedly engaged in a cover-up to shield Donoso and his wife and hinder the criminal investigation we were conducting,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “We have zero tolerance for corrupt insiders who think they play by a different set of rules.”
Donoso, 42, and Oviedo-Arevalo, 37, of Elizabeth, were each charged on April 30 by complaint-summons with third-degree theft by deception, third-degree tampering with public records and fourth-degree falsifying or tampering with records.
Capece, 62, of Cranford, and Nelson, 46, of Roselle, were each charged with third-degree tampering with public records, fourth-degree falsifying or tampering with records, and fourth-degree hindering apprehension. Nelson was charged by complaint-summons. Capece was charged by complaint-warrant and was arrested at his law office to be processed on the charges. His bail was set at $7,500. Capece was arrested after State Police detectives initially attempted to approach and advise Capece of the service of a complaint-summons at his residence. Capece refused to answer his front door and yelled at the officers from a second-story window to get off his lawn. He told the officers to meet him at his law office at 9 a.m., but he did not go to the office at that time.
Donoso, recently resigned from the Elizabeth Board of Education to allow him time open his own stock brokerage firm in New York City. Donoso was selected by Union County Republicans to be a candidate for state Senate but his petitions were rejected by authorities after a Union County Democratic Party leader filed a complaint alleging that there were an insufficient number of signatures.
Third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine of up to $15,000, while fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The charges are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Because they are indictable offenses, the charges will be presented to a state grand jury for potential indictment.
Detective Sgt. 1st Class Lisa King of the New Jersey State Police Official Corruption North Unit and Deputy Attorney General Veronica Allende of the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau conducted the investigation leading to the charges against Donoso, Oviedo-Arevalo, Capece and Nelson.
Munn, 48, of Elizabeth, the former president of the Elizabeth Board of Education, was indicted on May 30, 2012 by a state grand jury on third-degree charges of theft by deception and tampering with public records or information. Munn allegedly filed false applications for her two children for the district’s free and reduced-price lunch program, which resulted in one or both children receiving benefits to which they were not entitled in each of the five consecutive school years 2006-07, 2007-08, 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11. As a result of the applications, her children allegedly received $4,549 in benefits to which they were not entitled. Munn allegedly grossly understated her household income to obtain the benefits for her children. Her and her husband’s annual incomes exceeded the federal household income limit for the program by as much as $100,000 in 2008-09, and by $94,000 or more in three of the other years. The charges against Munn are pending and she is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Connect with NJTODAY.NET
Join NJTODAY.NET's free Email List to receive occasional updates delivered right to your email address!