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Investigation targets Atlantic City's re-entry team, mayor confirms

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Atlantic City’s mayor has heralded his new re-entry team as a way to give those returning from incarceration a path to becoming productive members of society.

But it’s the criminal pasts of two of the team’s new leaders that have raised questions — and an investigation by the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, BreakingAC confirmed.

Cornell Davis and Michele Griffin were announced as director and program coordinator, respectively, of Re-entry Services in Facebook posts by Mayor Marty Small on Jan. 2.

Two days later, City Hall was served with subpoenas for records “regarding an employee and a consultant,” Small told BreakingAC in his first public comments on the subject.

A second set of subpoenas were served about two weeks later, after there was no response to the first, sources said.

"The documents were in on a timely manner," Small responded to that allegation.

“This situation is filled with politics and it’s filled with race,” he said. “People have a problem that African Americans are being hired with criminal records.”

Small indicated it was hypocritical for Prosecutor Will Reynolds to talk about partnerships with the city, while “sensationalizing stuff just because you can.”

“If he really wanted to know the information, we would have gave it to him,” Small said.

The Prosecutor’s Office — which has a policy to not even confirm or deny an investigation’s existence — declined to comment for this story,

While Small did not name Davis or Griffin, sources have confirmed they are two of as many as four employees that are the targets of an inquiry.

Davis is a former Atlantic City Board of Education president who was convicted of bribery in 2008, three years after he took money in exchange for awarding a contract.

He was sentenced to five years in prison, and barred from public employment.

But Davis is not technically a city employee, even though his LinkedIn lists him as “Reentry Coordinator at City of Atlantic City,” and at least one other media publication said he was employed under a state grant for the city.

Instead, he was hired by the Ideal Institute of Technology based in Mays Landing. The city then contracts with Ideal for Davis to work as a consultant, according to a nine-page agreement between the city and Ideal. It does not name the consultant.

The memorandum of understanding lists the contract’s term as 12 months beginning Aug. 1, 2023, even though it was signed four months later on Dec. 1.

“It’s not just him,” Ideal founder Ren Parikh told BreakingAC. “We have a team of employees and contracts.”

He explained that Ideal gets grants, which are primarily for South Jersey. Davis is the only current Ideal consultant contracted to Atlantic City.

The state Department of Community Affairs, whose years-long fiscal oversight of the city was recently extended another four years, reiterated that Davis is not an employee.

“It is DCA’s understanding that Cornell Davis is a consultant employed by an outside organization,” spokeswoman Lisa Ryan responded in an email.

BreakingAC asked about both Davis and Griffin, who is paid under a DCA grant.

“We cannot comment on personnel issues, but generally speaking, Atlantic City is a second chance city by ordinance and, as such, has adopted policies that allow certain individuals to be hired under different government-sponsored re-entry programs that are dedicated to establishing pathways to employment for individuals with a criminal record,” she wrote.

Under the contract, Ideal will submit invoices to the city’s business administrator, with payments made by the city. The yearlong total is not to $65,000.

Ryan said the state would not answer follow-up questions about the agreement, including that technically city money is still being used to pay someone barred from public employment.

“Regarding the hirings (of Davis and Griffin), we’re not providing further comment beyond the response we emailed you earlier this month,” Ryan wrote Tuesday.

The Ideal deal is similar to one made with OCEAN Inc. when Floyd Tally was hired to head the city’s One Neighborhood Evolution anti-violence unit.

His first year was under that agreement, although he is now a city employee.

Tally served prison time for his role in a plan to blackmail a then-sitting Atlantic City councilman in 2006.

Griffin also does not seem barred from public employment by her criminal sentence, although she currently is on federal probation.

She was sentenced to 366 days in federal prison in June 2022, after admitting that she filed 19 false tax returns on behalf of six clients while working as a tax preparer in Galloway Township. She was ordered to repay restitution of $135,063.

Griffin was released Dec. 5 of last year, and hired 28 days later.

Small said the city is all about second chances, and that Griffin is well-educated. She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and is a dissertation away from her doctorate.

“They don’t understand Atlantic City,” Small said of the critics. “They don’t understand the urban culture because they don’t have to deal with these things where they come from.”

He also targeted some commenters on BreakingAC’s posts, “filled with people that are from out of town. People who don’t live here and don’t vote here.

“They couldn’t walk a day with anybody in Atlantic City’s shoes,” he said.

But Small would not publicly address comments Griffin made that also seemed to judge those she is now tasked with helping.

In since-deleted social media posts, Griffin addressed those in her community who were questioning the hiring.

“Ion have to (expletive) for a Job, I (expletive) COLLEGE,” she wrote.

“Got helluva experience dealing in these streets with u bums and yall crackhead ass Mothers & Fathers in the Drug Programs I have worked!” she continued. “Not to mention yall DON’T GOT CUSTODY OFF CAUSE UR MOMMAS IS RAISING THEM & Im the same counselor who spent more time with em then U!”

A screenshot of the post sent to BreakingAC did not include the full message.

“This lil badge right here got y’all panties in a bunch,” she wrote in another post that included her city identification. “WHY? #stopcallin #whatsformeisforme #gotoschool #bumssssss”

Small also took issue with reports that those with criminal records in these units are getting paid more than police, saying that is it comparing certain salaries and does not take into account how long someone has been working and other factors.

He repeated — as he has said in the past — that the work his anti-violence unit does behind the scenes is not something that can be publicized because of the work they do, but that it has made things better.

Small acknowledged the violent start to the year, but said he is tired of being blamed for everything in the city. He said that has gone back to before he was mayor or even council president.

"They're politicizing it," he said. "Last time I checked, I'm not walking around here with a badge or a gun."

Small said the city has a great Police Department, but that "we could have 2,000 police officers and, if a murder is going to happen, it's going to happen."

His administration, he insisted, has addressed every complaint, including increasing activities for the youth and seniors, homeless outreach and addressing multicultural needs and LGBTQ+ community.

"We’re going to stay focused," he said. "We have plan, and we’re going to work that plan."


Lynda Cohen

Lynda Cohen founded BreakingAC after working as a local newspaper reporter for more than two decades. She is an NJPA award-winner and was a Stories of Atlantic City fellow.

Sunday, May 19, 2024
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