A legal loophole could force a Brick school board member, as well as previous members who are no longer serving, to incur thousands of dollars in legal fees after being called as a witness as part of the latest round of investigations into suspended Superintendent Walter Uszenski.
Sharon Cantillo, the former board president, has been issued a subpoena along with other former board members, to testify in the prosecutor’s office’s latest investigation of Uszenski after a judge dismissed charges against him earlier this year and admonished the prosecution for the way it presented a previous case to a grand jury. Cantillo said she was advised by the prosecutor’s office to have an attorney present, especially because she is suffering from a condition that causes profound hearing loss and could possibly misunderstand a question.
Because Cantillo was not named in any legal action and has not been named the target of an investigation, the school district’s legal insurance policy does not cover her legal fees even though all of her testimony would be related to her service as a board member. The board could have voted to reimburse her legal fees anyway, but they apparently refused to do so when the subject was brought up during a closed session meeting before Thursday night’s regular board meeting.
Cantillo, who has served the district for more than a decade as a board member, is the last remaining board member still serving from when Uszenski was hired. Five of the seven board members were elected as the “Clean Slate” team and opposed Cantillo’s board allies in recent elections.
Cantillo, who has frequently said she is left in the dark on school issues and not sent committee meeting minutes and other materials, was visibly shaken from the denial and left the board meeting early. She is scheduled to undergo surgery Friday morning.
“I feel extremely disappointed and disrespected at the outcome of the discussion tonight.” Cantillo said.”There is an old fashioned saying that goes, ‘today me, tomorrow you.'”
“I do not feel that this is a team, and I hope one day that you don’t find yourself in the position that I’m in,” she continued.
“I have had to hire my own private counsel in order to protect myself and to protect the school board. That charge is a hardship, and I don’t think any one of my fellow board would want to be tesifying or go before any legal body without the benefit and comfort of an attorney at their side,” she said.
“She’s not a target in a criminal investigation, she’s a witness,” said board attorney Nicholas Montenegro, explaining why her legal counsel would not be covered by the district’s insurance policy.
Montenegro did acknowledge, however, that her testimony would be “based on knowledge she had as a school board member,” and later said that the decision not to reimburse her legal fees has “not been finalized.”
Sources have said all of the former board members who served while Uszenski was superintendent have been called to testify in front of a new investigative committee. Earlier this year, charges alleging Uszenski provided educational services to his grandson to which he was not entitled, were dismissed by Superior Court Judge Patricia Roe. In her decision, Roe found that prosecutors did not include potential exculpatory evidence – namely, that Uszenski’s grandson had already attended an alternative school and was approved to attend by the state before his grandfather was ever hired in Brick – and dismissed the charges.
The prosecutor’s office has told Uszenski’s attorney, Joseph Benediçt, that they will seek a new indictment despite the ruling.