Willis Edwards III, 49, formerly of East Orange, New Jersey, and currently of Lithonia, Georgia, the former acting business administrator for the Township of Orange, New Jersey, has been charged in a 28-count indictment with conspiracy, bribe-taking, money and property fraud, federal tax fraud, and making false statements in connection with a mortgage.
According to documents filed in this case:
In January 2015, Edwards had his friend, Franklyn Ore, from Urban Partners LLC (Urban Partners), using cash provided by Edwards, funnel to himself a stream of concealed kickbacks in exchange for Edwards’ official action as an Orange public official and assistance in the affairs of Orange and in violation of his duties in connection with:
- A Saturday literacy program for which Orange and the Orange Public Library were awarded a $50,000 Community Development Block Grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and administered by Essex County, to provide tutoring services for low and moderate-income families (the Saturday Literacy Program);
- A project for which an urban planning company located in Montclair, New Jersey, had received a one-year, $150,000 contract from Orange to provide professional economic planning services to analyze the conditions within the Central Orange Redevelopment Area (the “redevelopment project”); and
- A project to acquire the Orange YWCA building and develop it into a community recreation center.
Making False Statements in Connection with a Mortgage
In 2014, Edwards also made false statements to obtain mortgage relief on a $248,000 30-year mortgage loan that he obtained in 2005 to purchase a residence in East Orange, New Jersey. As of February 11, 2014, Edwards had fallen substantially in arrears on his mortgage payments. On April 7, 2014, Edwards submitted a completed Request for Mortgage Assistance form to the mortgage servicer. Edwards disclosed that he was employed by Orange and falsely indicated that he did not have a second employer, when, at the time, he also was employed by a New Jersey County College at an annual salary of approximately $45,000. On October 8, 2014, Edwards and the mortgage servicer entered into a Home Affordable Modification Agreement. In reliance upon false representations made by Edwards, the mortgage servicer provided the following benefits, among others, to Edwards: (1) $95,590 of Edwards’s debt was forgiven between July 2015 and July 2017, and (2) the real estate property was taken out of foreclosure.
The Saturday Literacy Program Fraud and Kickbacks
Despite knowing that Urban Partners did not provide any services to the library in connection with the Saturday Literacy Program, Edwards caused false and fraudulent vouchers to be submitted in March 2015 and in May 2015 to Essex County seeking Saturday literacy grant funds for expenses purportedly paid to Urban Partners. In support of the fraudulent vouchers, Edwards had phony documents submitted to Essex County, including: (1) a sham contract between Urban Partners and the library, backdated to over six months before Urban Partners had been formed, (2) false statistical data about the children who supposedly attended the literacy sessions, (3) fake Urban Partners invoices, and (4) backdated library checks payable to Urban Partners that had not been negotiated when submitted to Essex County to give the false impression that the Library had paid Urban Partners, when it had not done so.
Between April 2015 and June 2015, Essex County provided the Library with $50,000 in HUD funds for the Saturday Literacy Program. Between May 2015 and August 2015, Edwards caused the library to pay Urban Partners approximately $36,000, despite knowing that Urban Partners had not provided the library with any services in connection with the Saturday Literacy Program. Edwards received kickbacks from Ore from the money paid to Urban Partners by the library. At Edwards’s direction, Ore also provided a portion of the proceeds from the library to an associate of Edwards. Ore spent the remaining proceeds for his own personal benefit.
The Redevelopment Project Fraud and Kickbacks
Edwards used his influence as an Orange public official to arrange for the planning company to hire Urban Partners after the planning company had received its contract with Orange. Ore provided services to the Planning Committee and, between August 2015 and February 2016, the planning company, which was receiving payments from Orange, paid Urban Partners $33,220. Edwards received kickbacks from Ore from the money that the planning company paid to Urban Partners.
The YWCA Project Fraud and Kickback
In December 2015, aware that his resignation as an Orange public official would become effective on December 31, 2015, Edwards took further steps to use his position for corrupt and fraudulent purposes. Edwards advised Ore that Edwards had access to Orange discretionary funds and wanted to use them by the end of the year. At Edwards’s instruction, Ore generated and submitted a fraudulent invoice from Urban Partners to Orange, billing Orange $16,800 for services purportedly related to the YWCA Project. Edwards, knowing that no services has been rendered, approved the issuance of a purchase order and Orange paid Urban Partners $16,800. On December 30, 2015, Edwards received a substantial amount of the $16,800 in a kickback from Ore.
The Plagiarism Scheme
From June 2015 to June 2016, Edwards duped Orange into making payments to a consultant, which were, at least in part, for academic papers that the consultant arranged to have written for Edwards. Edwards, who was enrolled in a graduate program at a university in New Jersey, plagiarized the papers that Orange paid for and passed them off as his own work. Between December 2015 and March 2016, with Edwards’s approval, the consultant submitted three fraudulent invoices to Orange calling for payments of $12,000, $16,000, and $10,000 for purported professional services. Orange paid the money to the consultant and Edwards received from the consultant academic papers that had been written for him. On June 20, 2016, Edwards submitted several papers which were virtually identical to the papers that he had received from the consultant. In emails to the professors, to which the papers were attached, Edwards asked the professors to grade the attached outstanding assignments so that he did “not receive a failing grade for all of the hard work that [he had] done.”
The Graduate School Payments Scheme
The indictment also charges Edwards with fraud in connection with funding his graduate studies. Between December 2015 and July 2016, Edwards engaged in a scheme to defraud Orange of $25,142 in payments to himself and University 1 related to Edwards’s graduate courses there and at another university in New Jersey through the use of a fraudulent approval memorandum. In February 2016, when Edwards was no longer an Orange public official, he dictated the following language to an employee in Orange’s Finance Department (Orange Employee 1) for use in a fraudulent approval memorandum addressed to Edwards: “As per the employee handbook, this memorandum serves as consent for you [Edwards] to enroll in the courses as discussed. Please forward the invoices to process for payment.” Edwards instructed Orange Employee 1 to backdate the memorandum to Aug. 17, 2015, to give the false impression that Edwards had received approval for Orange to pay for academic courses in which he had enrolled.
On February 10, 2016, at Edwards’s direction, Orange Employee 1 sent an email to a senior public official in the office of the Mayor of Orange (Orange Employee 2) containing a draft of the fraudulent approval memorandum. Orange Employee 2 later provided Orange Employee 1 with a final copy of the fraudulent approval memorandum on Orange letterhead, purportedly from the Mayor of Orange, addressed to Edwards, and backdated to August 17, 2015. It included the language that Edwards dictated to Orange Employee 1 and bore the stamp of the initials of the Mayor of Orange to give the false impression that the Mayor of Orange had approved Edwards’s reimbursement for the courses, when the Mayor of Orange had not done so.
Federal Tax Fraud
Edwards also caused a false 2015 federal tax return to be filed with the IRS. From January 2016 to April 15, 2016, Edwards conspired with his tax return preparer, Zenobia Williams, to defraud the United States and the IRS by claiming bogus labor expenses of $27,055 for his business, Natural Care Municipal Cleaning Services LLC (Natural Care), on that tax return. In addition to falsifying business expenses, Edwards also underreported Natural Care’s income. He reported $40,000 in gross receipts, when Natural Care actually received approximately $52,000 in payments from a New Jersey law firm and approximately $32,500 in payments from a local Board of Education. Edwards also did not report the ill-gotten gains that he obtained in 2015 in connection with the Saturday Literacy Program, the Redevelopment Project, and the YWCA Project.
The charges carry the following maximum potential penalties:
|Offenses Charged||Maximum Term of Imprisonment||Maximum Fine|
|False statement concerning a mortgage||30 years||$1,000,000|
|Conspiracy to commit wire fraud or wire fraud and mail fraud||20 years||$250,000|
|Wire fraud||20 years||$250,000|
|Mail fraud||20 years||$250,000|
|Theft from a federally-funded local government||10 years||$250,000|
|Bribery in connection with the business of a federally funded local government||10 years||$250,000|
|Conspiracy to defraud the United States and the IRS||Five years||$250,000|
|Subscribing to a false tax return||Three years||$250,000|
On January 13, 2020, Ore entered a guilty plea to an information charging offenses related to the Saturday Literacy Program, the Redevelopment Project, and the YWCA Project. On February 13, 2020, Timur Davis, the former Executive Director of the Orange Library, entered a guilty plea to an information charging an offense related to the Saturday Literacy Program and another HUD-funded program to replace an HVAC/Chiller unit at the Library. On December 30, 2019, Williams entered a guilty plea to conspiring to defraud the United States and the IRS.
Edwards was charged with 14 counts of wire fraud, two counts of bribery in connection with the business of a federally funded local government, two counts of theft from a federally funded local government, two counts of mail fraud, two counts of false statements concerning a mortgage, one count of bribery in connection with the business of a federally funded local government and organization, one count of theft from a federally funded local government and organization, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and mail fraud, one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and the IRS, and one count of filing a false tax return. A date for Edwards’ arraignment has not yet been scheduled.
U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito made the announcement.
U.S. Attorney Carpenito credited special agents of the FBI, under the direction of Acting Special Agent in Charge Joe Denahan in Newark; special agents of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Inspector General, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Christina Scaringi; and special agents of IRS-Criminal Investigation, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Michael Montanez with the investigation leading to the charges.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Cari Fais and J Fortier Imbert of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Special Prosecutions Division.
The charges and allegations in the indictment are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.