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Union County Manager Ed Oatman doesn’t see anything wrong with supervising one of his public employees, while her campaign pays his private consulting firm, apparently with funds from the former campaign account of the late Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-22) (pictured, above).
Formerly the chief of staff of Senator (and now Union County Democratic Committee Chairman) Nick Scutari, Oatman serves as county manager in Union, where the public employees he supervises include administrative assistant Gretchen Hickey.
Hickey’s also a councilwoman in Linden, who ran for mayor last year and lost.
The campaign of Hickey and her ticket mates retained – to produce things like handouts, palm cards and flyers – the services of Oatman’s political consulting and governmental affairs firm, Parktowne Associates, which he owns with Union County Democratic Committee Executive Director Nick Fixmer.
Hickey lost in the June Democratic Primary to incumbent Mayor Derek Armstead.
In the early fall of 2018, the Hickey ticket still owed Parktowne Associates a single allocation of $30,800.
The councilwoman and her two running mates’ campaign – treasured by Laura Scutari, niece of the senator – settled that particular debt in the aftermath of receiving money from the campaign account of the late Assemblyman Green. According to state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) records, the Green account submitted a payment of $24,600 to the Hickey, Alvarez and Medina Campaign in October of 2018. Also according to ELEC, on November 5th of last year, the Hickey, Alvarez and Medina campaign reported a $30,800 payment to Parktowne, which last year earned $150,000 for promoting candidates like Hickey and her team in elections around the county. Oatman’s allies point out that it’s not like a campaign pays a flat fee right into his pocket. There’s a markup there, sure, but small and lately not worth the drama, they argue, but concede the animations of silly season in a politically pockmarked county.
As manager, Oatman makes a public salary of $150,800.
The Hickey Team also made an earlier payment (6/20) directly to Oatman in the amount of $8,045 for
“billboards and lawn signs,” and an additional $1,000 for other expenses. According to a January 2019 report filed with ELEC, the Hickey Team still owed Parktowne another $29,019 for flyers and walk cards.
“It’s a little unusual,” Armstead said of Hickey’s public boss getting paid for his company’s campaign services.
But what irked the mayor more, he said, “was the use of Jerry Green’s funds to go after me,” an African American mayor.
State Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28) concurred.
“They’re using the money of Jerry Green, Union County’s first African American chairman of the Union County Democratic Party, to go after someone who looks like Jerry,” Rice said.
In a larger context, Armstead complained about Scutari’s team spending $10,000 for children as a charitable donation and “329K on himself,” in the form of political campaign donations, both in Union and elsewhere.
Oatman, for his part, said he doesn’t see a big deal here, and does not see a conflict of interest in his supervision of Hickey while simultaneously drawing money from her for political campaign services rendered.
“No,” he said. “People can run for public office no matter where, and for whom, they work. Gretchen’s career with the County of Union as well as her service as an elected official in Linden, long predates my becoming county manager. To make unfair assumptions beyond that would be a discredit to all her accomplishments.”
As for what his political opponents regard as the tacky appearance of collecting funds – albeit indirectly – from the campaign account of the late Jerry Green, the county manager said, “I believe Jerry’s brother already addressed this issue.”
Hickey noted that Oatman – who became county manager just last year – has helped her before, and does not see a conflict.
“Ed helped me on my first campaign about five years ago, before he became county manager. Also, I don’t directly report to Ed and he doesn’t supervise me day-to-day,” the councilwoman said. “It needs to be pointed out that I’ve worked in government for eight years, and in a variety of roles with increasing responsibilities. I also have been a Linden City councilwoman since 2014, repeatedly standing up to a Mayor who tries to bully and intimidate people into doing what he wants. I’m very proud of the work I’ve done for taxpayers throughout Union County, and particularly in Linden. In both ways, I’ve been serving the public long before Ed became the county manager.
“I think the campaign account you’re referring to was our joint account, correct? That was for myself, Jorge Alvarez, and Armando Medina,” she added. “We got a late start, and found ourselves underfunded at times. My running mates, my team, and I were determined to raise enough money to pay off any remaining debt. To accomplish that, people helped from a variety of places – including the late Assemblyman’s account. But we did finally pay off all remaining debt. That’s certainly more than that can be said about Mayor Armstead who doesn’t even bother to file his ELEC forms. I believe he has been fined twice already by the State. Additionally, I sent documentation last year to the State Election Board because Mayor Armstead received a donation from the late, respected Assemblyman Green for $2000 and did not think it was important to report it on his elect reports. Makes you wonder how much in contributions he has received over the years and didn’t report.”