TRENTON — Ben Delisle claims he was forced out as the city’s housing and economic development director because he refused to fast-track “illegal” demolition projects that Mayor Reed Gusciora wanted prioritized ahead of next year’s mayoral race.
In an explosive whistleblower suit filed last week by Delisle’s attorneys, the ex-housing director alleged he was cut loose not long after complaining in writing to high-ranking city officials about their “illegal” and “improper” demands on him.
The complaint directly implicates Gusciora and key members of his administration in the pressure campaign, with Delisle pointing to a conversation that he had with the mayor about the demolition projects, which were being funded in part by more than $11 million in state money that went unspent by previous administrations.
He claimed that Gusicora barked at him during the discussion that he wouldn’t “get re-elected” if Delisle didn’t immediately address the abandoned properties.
Delisle claimed he had been “working diligently” through the procurement process to get the demolition projects off the ground, but it wasn’t fast enough for the mayor and his team who were eyeing a “handpicked” group of contractors who were “invited” to bid for the work.
“People are laughing at me online because the demolitions were not moving!” Gusciora reportedly told the housing director during one meeting.
Delisle, who was forced out last month after two years on the job, believes he was handed walking papers because he wouldn’t cave to “frustrated” members of Gusciora’s administration.
They allegedly wanted the demolitions classified as emergencies so they could bypass onerous mandates on public contract bidding, the complaint outlined.
An apparent stickler for the rules and regulations, Delisle “insisted” that he wouldn’t take shortcuts just to appease Gusciora, who wanted to fulfill a campaign promise to demolish 1,000 homes in 1,000 days as the 2022 mayoral race inched closer.
Not taking no for an answer, Gusicora’s flunkies continued working on Delisle, according to the suit.
During a July 6 meeting, business administrator Adam Cruz told Delisle that he was “overthinking the situation,” according to the complaint.
When Delisle reiterated why he felt the shortcuts were unlawful and eroded public trust, chief of staff Arch Liston bluntly asked Delisle who he worked for, the complaint says.
Liston replied “correct” when Delisle affirmed that he served at the mayor’s pleasure, the lawsuit says.
Officials allegedly went so far as to tell Delisle that he’d have “cover” from construction code officials who were “on board with declaring the buildings to be imminent hazards” to get around the contract bidding process.
The meeting ended with Delisle “standing his ground,” which made him an “outcast” with Gusciora.
A month later, Delisle says he was roped into another meeting during which Liston and Cruz gave him an ultimatum that left him “dumbfounded”: resign or he’d be fired.
Liston couldn’t be reached and Cruz didn’t answer a phone call seeking comment on the allegations.
When he appealed to the mayor, he was told that Gusciora wanted to find someone who “would be more creative with limited resources,” the complaint says.
The lawsuit also pointed to emails that Delisle received from assistant city attorney Julie Murray, who is also accused of pressuring the housing director to cave to the mayor’s whims.
In one email July 2, Murray allegedly “threatened” Delisle to take immediate action to knock down several South Hermitage Avenue properties or he’d be “personally liable” if someone was injured if any of those properties collapsed.
Delisle was alarmed by the email but unmoved.
“As Director of HED, I believe it is improper to not publicly bid this work. It has been abandoned for years; it does not meet the definition of emergency. It [the public bidding] only takes 10 days to be advertised,” he wrote to Murray, according to the complaint.
“I have not failed to act on these. It was brought to my attention just yesterday. There are nearly 2,000 abandoned houses throughout the city by some counts. The city owns hundreds upon hundreds. To claim that I have personal responsibility for them, without doing the research, is reckless.
“You continue to instruct my staff to act in ways in violation of public procurement law, often without my knowledge. Furthermore, I find that your continuing behavior of intimidation, harassment, and bullying to not only be unprofessional, but contrary to city policy. I would welcome constructive and collaborative help on putting out bids, contracts, assisting local contractors in navigating the bidding process, and ensuring that we are adhering to the administrative rules with regard to hazard notices,” Delisle continued in the email.
Delisle was tasked with overseeing disbursement of $11.5 million in state funds to demolish city-owned buildings as part of the Neighborhood Redevelopment and Revitalization Pilot Program.
Previous administrations were supposed to shepherd the program but it never got off the ground, and the funds were unspent when Delisle came aboard, the complaint outlined.
That was an “embarrassment to the City of Trenton” that Gusciora inherited, the lawsuit said.
And, as the mayoral election neared, administrators were “unhappy” with Delisle’s lack of progress and instructions he gave his staff to follow state procurement laws on the demolition projects.
Trenton retained engineers to prepare specifications for the demolitions and, as Delisle saw it, the contracts had to be awarded and property owners notified before buildings were demolished.
He raised concerns that without the proper bidding process most of the work would go to “a small, private, hand selected group of contractors who personally had been ‘invited’ to bid on the work,” the complaint outlines.
The contractor isn’t named in the complaint, and Delisle’s attorney declined to comment on the suit.
The suit comes about a month after Delisle was fired. He faced allegations last year from a Black city worker, Tanzania Green, who said Delisle spelled out the N-word in her presence while they discussed business at her desk.
Those allegations are now a part of a whistleblower claim from former assistant city attorney Jacqueline Abdur-Razzaq, who investigated and sustained the misconduct claims against the housing director.
City officials said Delisle’s departure had nothing to do with the racial slur claims.
Neither Gusciora and his spokesman responded to requests for comment. Council president Kathy McBride didn’t return a phone call about Delisle’s claims.