- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 19, 2014

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - The head of a corporation formed to oversee Newark’s water system authorized risky investments that resulted in big losses and wrote payroll checks to herself totaling $200,000 before receiving a severance package worth twice that, according to a highly critical report issued Wednesday by the state comptroller’s office.

The now-defunct Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corp. operated “free from any meaningful oversight” by the city, the report said an investigation revealed. The report faulted executive director Linda Watkins-Brashear, who was given the buyout at an emergency board meeting after state investigators began asking questions.

“This report documents an egregious and yet preventable abuse of public funds that was allowed to continue unfettered for years because of poor oversight,” state comptroller Chief of Staff Melissa Liebermann wrote. The comptroller’s office said it has referred the case to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice.

Among the allegations in the report are that Watkins-Brashear:

-invested in risky investment instruments without board permission, resulting in losses of $558,000;

-wrote 70 checks to herself for which the NWCDC has been unable to provide documentation or justification;

-authorized contracts worth more than $300,000 for interior design work to companies owned by her ex-husband, with checks written to him and not his company;

-paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in landscaping contracts to a vendor who told investigators he had no landscaping experience, and purchased landscaping equipment only after the contracts had been awarded.

There was no answer at a number listed for Watkins-Brashear on Wednesday.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who was Newark’s mayor during the 2008-2011 period referenced in the report, said Wednesday that the “malfeasance” alleged in the report is “infuriating.” He said anyone involved with any wrongdoing should be prosecuted.

“For years, I led a public battle to reform Newark’s water system and improve oversight and accountability, but those efforts were repeatedly blocked,” Booker said.

He said when allegations of wrongdoing at the Watershed were raised last year, he put the city in direct control of its operations.

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