Civil Rights Advocates, Community Leaders Applaud NJ DOE Commissioner’s Decision Upholding School Ethics Commission Penalty for Piscataway BOE Member Over Islamophobic Flyer Circulated by Local Democrats
Accountability, justice and unity are still needed, says Dr. Atif Nazir
August 24, 2021 Piscataway, NJ – Dr. Atif Nazir, a well-respected Piscataway leader and former School Board member, today applauded the decision by the Acting Commissioner of the NJ Department of Education Angelica Allen-McMillan Ed.D., affirming the School Ethics Commission’s (SEC) recommendation in a case he filed with the support of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of NJ (CAIR-NJ) and Central Jersey Progressive Democrats (CJPD) against Piscataway Board of Education member Nitang Patel.
In June 2019, Patel was one of three signatories on a flyer that was paid for by state Senator Bob Smith and distributed by Paulette Crabiel Wahler (wife of Piscataway Mayor Wahler) and her running mate Dennis Espinosa, who were then candidates for County Committee Member running with the support of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization (MCDO).
The flyer was translated into Gujarati and distributed to Indian-American households of Hindu faith. The flyer failed to include required disclaimers and trafficked in dog-whistle politics to exploit a foreign conflict and divide ethnic groups in Piscataway, NJ. Although he was not running for office, the flyer named Dr. Atif Nazir, an outspoken and admired Muslim former BOE member, and called the opposing slate “a radical group under the leadership of Atif Nazir that wants to take over our township government. We cannot let that happen.”
Other signatories on the flyer were Zoning Board member Kalpesh Patel and Council President Kapil Shah, who exhorted members of the Indian-American community to support the MCDO candidates to prevent their local government from being taken over by a “radical group” at the helm of a Muslim leader.
Following a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Ascione, and an appeal by Dr. Nazir from the ALJ’s ruling, the SEC and Commissioner agreed that Patel violated three sections of the School Ethics Act: NJSA 18A:12-24.1(e), (f) and (g). These statutory safeguards prevent school board members from taking action that has the potential of compromising the school board; surrendering independent judgment to partisan political groups; and providing inaccurate information.
Patel argued that a lesser sanction of reprimand was appropriate for the first-time offense. However, Acting Commissioner Allen-McMillan denied his appeal, finding that he “purposefully referenced his position on the Board to support his political agenda.” The Commissioner found his actions “egregious” and that “a censure is the appropriate penalty for respondent’s’ failure to include a disclaimer while referencing his position on the Board in a targeted political mailing.”
In a statement on the decision, Dr. Nazir said:
“I applaud the decision by the Acting Commissioner and the NJ School Ethics Commission. This is a win for responsibility, fairness and, most of all, for our community. It is a loss for those who spread hate and fear. I am very thankful for the support and help of my diverse community who stood with me during this hard time and spoke out against this Islamophobic flyer and a divisive, hateful campaign to damage our unity. Members of our Township may be different in color, faith, race, ethnicity, or national origin, but most of us are united as one against all forms of hate.
“I am grateful for this decision, as it sets an example and a standard for the rest of the culprits who promoted and funded this divisiveness. They have still not apologized to me or been held responsible in any way. Flyer funder State Sen. Bob Smith issued a general statement, but never apologized to me. There’s been complete silence by the flyer’s signatories Council President Kapil Shah and Zoning Board member Kalpesh Patel, along with flyer’s distributors Paulette Crabiel Wahler and Dennis Espinosa. They were all directly involved and should apologize for their shameful behavior and be reprimanded by their colleagues.
“Holding all of these people accountable is part of the healing process for our community. We cannot have the unity we need and deserve until they take responsibility for their actions. I hope the Township Council, Zoning Board and the Democratic Organizations involved will penalize these individuals, like the School Ethics Commission has done to Nitang Patel, so all our neighbors know whether they support this hate or not. We cannot sweep their participation under the rug. We need to repair all of the harm done by this flyer and we will not rest until justice is secured.”
Patel was on the slate of candidates elected in 2018 who ran under the slogan Better, Safer Schools (“BSS”). He is not seeking re-election when his term ends later this year, and neither are any of his running mates, including the current BOE President Shelia Hobson. Instead, continuing a pattern of underhanded political behavior, allies of the BSS slate have chosen to run under the slogan “Putting Students First” in an obvious attempt to cause voter confusion by appropriating the slogan of the “Putting Kids First” slate, which successfully ran against the BSS slate in 2020, and is running a slate of candidates again in 2021.
The case was brought on behalf of Dr. Nazir by Yael Bromberg, Esq. of Bromberg Law LLC and Nina Rossi, Esq. of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of NJ (CAIR-NJ) with support from CJPD. The decision may be appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court within 45 days.
In a statement, CAIR-NJ Executive Director Selaedin Maksut said:
“We welcome the Acting Commissioner’s decision to censure Mr. Patel. Inflammatory rhetoric stoking anti-Muslim sentiment for political gain should never serve as the base of a political campaign. Vilifying Muslims in the political arena is unfortunately an all-too-common tactic that should never be tolerated.”
In a statement, CAIR-NJ Civil Rights Attorney Nina Rossi said:
“Censure is the appropriate penalty not only because Patel’s action in signing the Islamophobic flyer as a school board member without a disclaimer was egregious and intentional, but because the Acting Commissioner’s decision sends a clear message to school board members that if they fail to adhere to the code of ethics there will be serious consequences.”
In a statement, Yael Bromberg, Esq. of Bromberg Law LLC said:
“This decision sends a message to youth and community members that the state will not permit local government to unethically traffic in ethnic divisions and stereotypes, at least with regard to school board members.”
In a statement, Staci Berger, CJPD President said:
“This flyer was a blatant and awful attempt by the Smith-Wahler political machine to divide our community based on ethnicity and religion, and has no place in our diverse Township. It is just one example of what these so-called “democrats” will do to stay in power. Whether it’s their opposition to residents’ call to secure open government by broadcasting public meetings, launching personal attacks on people who oppose building warehouses next to elementary schools or trafficking in Islamophobic messages, it is clear that they do not care about ethics, decency or democracy.”
CAIR’s mission is to enhance understanding of Islam, protect civil rights, promote justice, and empower American Muslims. CJPD is a volunteer, grassroots organization formed after the election of Donald Trump, comprised of candidates and supporters mobilizing for social, racial, economic and political justice. The two organizations are planning a joint event in the fall to celebrate Piscataway’s diversity and explore the impact of this decision for its future.