Muslim Leader, Community Groups File Exceptions in Nitang Patel’s BOE Ethics Case

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Muslim Leader, Community Groups File Exceptions in Nitang Patel’s BOE Ethics Case

Piscataway BOE Member Seeks to Escape Sanctions for Role in Islamophobic Flyer Case

Piscataway, NJ – Attorneys for Dr. Atif Nazir, the Council on American-Islamic Relations New Jersey and the Central Jersey Progressive Democrats filed opposition papers yesterday in an ongoing ethics case involving current Piscataway School Board member Nitang Patel.  The School Ethics Commission (SEC) ruled against Mr. Patel two weeks ago, finding that he violated three provisions of the School Ethics Act and instituting a penalty of censure for Mr. Patel.

Mr. Patel signed an anti-Muslim flyer that targeted Dr. Nazir during the 2019 Democratic Primary in Piscataway. The flyer was signed by Patel and two other local Hindu-American officials, translated into Gujarati and distributed exclusively to Hindu-American households. It urged voters to preserve the “special relationship” between the incumbents in the Piscataway Democratic Organization and to oppose the candidates running as Central Jersey Progressive Democratic (CJPD) challengers for Middlesex County Democratic Organization (MCDO) County Committee.  Piscataway Progressive Democratic Organization members ran with nearly 100 other candidates under the CJPD umbrella in County Committee races in 2017 and 2019.

The language used in the flyer against the CJPD named Dr. Atif Nazir, an outspoken and admired Muslim former school board member, and called the CJPD slate “a radical group under the leadership of Atif Nazir that wants to take over our township government. We cannot let that happen.”  MCDO candidates including Paulette Crabiel Wahler, the wife of Piscataway Mayor Brian C. Wahler, distributed the flyer.  State Senator Bob Smith, who represents Piscataway as part of his legislative district, paid for it.

The Commission agreed with Dr. Nazir’s ethics complaint that Mr. Patel failed to include a disclaimer required by the statute, which lets voters know that School Board members are representing their own opinions and not those of the Board.  The SEC found that Patel’s inclusion of his Board position/status on the flyer without the proper disclaimer gave the appearance “both actual and perceived, of having the support of, and endorsement of the Board, and/or being made on behalf of the Board as a body.” As a result, his actions had the potential to compromise the Board. Moreover, the SEC found that Mr. Patel violated the statute by surrendering his judgement to a partisan political organization, and that he failed to provide accurate information. Mr. Patel filed papers with the Commissioner of Education that did not object to the Commission’s finding of violations of law, but asked for a lighter sanction.

“None of the people who signed that hateful flyer have genuinely apologized to me or been held accountable in any way,” said Dr. Nazir. “Mr. Patel wants to continue to get away with his violations without being held publicly accountable for those actions, especially when he has done so much damage to me and our diverse and caring community. We have seen what happens when people are not held responsible for their intolerant, racist and untrue words. He must be held accountable. The local Democratic Party also supported his actions. Our community and our students deserve better.

The case was originally heard by Administrative Law Judge Ascione. In his decision, the judge recommended a lighter penalty, but the SEC’s review found additional violations and increased the penalty for Mr. Patel, whose first term has been marred by this episode and an attempt to remove Lt. Ralph Johnson last summer from the School Board.  That decision was also successfully overturned by the SEC, which restored Johnson to his position. Mr. Patel is a member of the “Better, Safer Schools” slate, which has been supported by the Piscataway Democratic Organization.

“The School Ethics Code, guiding case law, and related annual trainings are very clear that while BOE members have every right to their own political views, they cannot surrender their independent judgment to any other special interest or partisan group,” said Yael Bromberg, Esq. of Bromberg Law LLC, who helped argue the case.  “What makes this case particularly egregious is that Mr. Patel leveraged his affiliation on the Board of Education, with the support of a partisan group, to traffic in dog-whistle politics and exploit a foreign conflict to divide the Muslim Pakistani and Hindu Gujarat Indian communities here at home in New Jersey. How are students and their respective communities meant to feel safe when elected officials act this way?”

The full decision is publicly available here. The Commissioner of the Department of Education can uphold, reject or amend the SEC’s ruling.

“The SEC found that Mr. Patel’s actions regarding the disclaimer were specific and deliberate, said Nina Rossi, Esq. attorney for CAIRNJ, who is co-counsel in this matter.  “The Commission further found that Mr. Patel collaborated with other individuals to support candidates in the Democratic primary for Piscataway Township Committee and that Mr. Patel admitted that the information in the flyer was inaccurate. Mr. Patel’s behavior was egregious, deliberate and purposeful.”

Rossi noted that Mr. Patel has not yet acknowledged any responsibility for violating three separate provisions of the Code of Ethics for Board Members. Counsels’ hope is that the Office reviewing Mr. Patel’s appeal of the penalty will send a strong and clear message that hateful, divisive rhetoric and Islamophobia have no place on School Boards by keeping the penalty of Censure in place.

CAIR New Jersey is the state affiliate of America’s largest Islamic civil liberties and advocacy group. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding. CAIR NJ strives to ensure that Muslims in New Jersey enjoy the same protections that all Americans have.

CJPD is a grassroots, all-volunteer organization whose members believe in social, political and economic justice. CJPD has run hundreds of candidates in Middlesex and Somerset Counties for party, local, county and state offices to advance our agenda for fairness, equality and justice for all.  CJPD’s 2019 successful, groundbreaking litigation, argued by Ms. Bromberg, ended gendered political party county committee seats in Middlesex County and, now, across NJ.

CJPD has established a legal action fund to secure justice for Dr. Nazir.  Contributions can be made online here or sent to CJPD c/o 200 Eighth Street, Piscataway, NJ 08854.

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