Lawyer trials are political spectacle with consequences

A prominent Union County attorney was overheard telling friends he planned on attending “with popcorn in a front row seat” trials for two former Elizabeth school board lawyers when they begin this month but a circus atmosphere hides the fact that two men face years in prison if they lose this political game.

The pair stand accused of interfering with an investigation of a federally funded lunch program by arranging for the temporary disappearance of a bogus lunch application that vastly understated household income when it was filed by a school board member and his.

Frank Capece (Photo courtesy of NJ Attorney General's Office)

Frank Capece (Photo courtesy of NJ Attorney General’s Office)

Frank Capece, 64, of Cranford, and Kirk Nelson, 48, of Roselle, are each charged with two counts of official misconduct, conspiracy, tampering with public records or information, tampering with or fabricating physical evidence and hindering apprehension or prosecution.

The indictment charging Capece and Nelson is available online.

Kirk Nelson (Photo courtesy of NJ Attorney General's Office)

Kirk Nelson (Photo courtesy of NJ Attorney General’s Office)

The federally funded lunch program provides free and reduced-cost meals for children in lower income families. Then school board member John Donoso and his wife Olga Oviedo-Arevalo were charged with theft by deception, tampering with public records and falsifying records.

Charges against Donoso are still pending but Oviedo-Arevalo was admitted to the Pre-Trial Intervention program, has completed a probationary sentence and paid $1,700.

According to the indictment, the lawyers directed an employee of the Board of Education to remove a document from the records they knew was relevant to an ongoing investigation being conducted by the State of New Jersey.

“These two attorneys allegedly did Donoso’s bidding by deliberately thwarting a State Police subpoena that would have uncovered his wife’s false application for the free lunch program,” Division of Criminal Justice Director Elie Honig said in a 2013 statement. “Rather than fulfilling their obligation as lawyers to uphold the law, Nelson and Capece allegedly obstructed a criminal investigation to satisfy their client.”

As a result of the investigation, the Elizabeth School District agreed to pay $322,310 in costs and penalties to resolve allegations it used federal and state funds to provide meals and catering services for the school board and other school functions.

The district used the federally subsidized lunch program to set up and serve $182,243 in meals for the board over a six-year period, and an additional $90,567 to cater food to schools, principals, and administrators in the district between 2008 and June 2014, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

In a separate but related cases, a former school board president and a former facilities supervisor were convicted on charges related to the lunch program.

Former Elizabeth school board president Marie Munn was convicted for receiving free or subsidized lunch for her children for several years, despite an income that exceeded federal eligibility limits. In May, 2014, a judge order her to serve children in the lunch program as part of a probationary sentence.

Marlene Abitanto, who had been employed by the school district as facilities supervisor and supervisor of custodians, was convicted of tampering with records that enabled her daughter to get free school lunches.

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