A Union County Jury acquitted attorney Frank G. Capece of all charges in a case involving a school board member’s alleged abuse of the Elizabeth school lunch program. Capece, 65, of Cranford, was innocent on charges of official misconduct, tampering with public records, hindering prosecution records and conspiracy.
“The investigation tried to find corruption where there was only good faith legal advice” said defense attorney Robert DeGroot. “After the verdict the jurors came out and congratulated Mr. Capece and his family.”
Capece said, “It was clear from day one these charges were the result of the fiction writing of the investigators assigned to the matter.”
Another school board lawyer, Kirk Nelson, was previously found not guilty of charges that he helped a former member of the Elizabeth Board of Education, who was charged with official misconduct and tampering with public records.
The state Attorney General’s Office, which investigated a number of abuse cases involving the federally funded lunch program, alleged that Capece and Nelson tried to conceal a false application that a former school board member’s wife had filed. One observer questioned why the case move forwards after Nelson, who was the school board attorney, was acquitted, since Capece was appointed as outside counsel to the district and a conviction seemed unlikely.
David E. Johnson Jr., director of the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE), said Capece has been a member of Fee Arbitration Committee, which helps resolve disputes between consumers and their attorneys.
Capece has served as executive assistant to the Secretary of State, township attorney for Berkeley Heights, Union County personnel counsel, and corporation counsel for the City of Perth Amboy. He was a member of the Corporation Law Revision Commission and New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Professional Corporations.
His law firm, Garrubo & Capece, has represented the Saint Barnabas Health Care System; Princeton Insurance Co.; Health Care Insurance Co.; State Farm Insurance Company; Motor Club of America; Wakefern Food Corporation; Farmers Mutual Insurance Company; Mercer Mutual Insurance Company; the City of Linden; Runnells Hospital in Berkeley Heights; and, Union County.
After a two-week trial, jurors deliberated for six hours before finding Capece not guilty.
In 2011, the state charged then-school board president Marie Lynn Munn and the spouses of two other school officials with filed false documents to illegally qualify their children for free or reduced price lunches. Munn was convicted and sentenced to probation and community service. Charges against the two spouses were dismissed.
The Elizabeth public school district agreed to pay $322,310 to resolve allegations that it had misspent federal and state funds for the lunch program.
John Donoso, the former board member, is charged with theft by deception, tampering with public records and falsifying or tampering with records. His wife, Olga Oviedo-Arevalo, faced the same charges but she was admitted to the Pre-Trial Intervention program and completed a probationary sentence.
The allegations against Capece and Nelson claimed that they were involved in a cover-up but the situation that unfolded might look more like a comedy of errors, had not the lives of two men been at stake.
In August 2011, an Elizabeth Board of Education member told two lawyers employed by the district that his wife understated their household income on an application filed that would have entitled his children to receive free and reduced-cost meals for the school year about to begin in September.
The attorneys directed school staff to remove the application and delete it from a computer used to administer the program. As a result, that application was not provided to state investigators who issued a subpoena for all records related to the lunch program going back to 2004.
While Capece and Nelson have been cleared of wrongdoing in the matter, they have lost their positions representing the school district. Political allies of Mayor Chris Bollwage upended the school board majority that had appointed them after a decade long struggle and replaced all the lawyers selected by the prior regime.
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