Plainfield Hispanic-rights group hires lawyers in immigration suit
By MARK SPIVEY
The Latin American Coalition, a city Hispanic-rights group, has retained attorneys from a prominent New York City-based civil-rights organization in response to a federal lawsuit that has the potential to turn the city into the epicenter of the national debate concerning illegal immigration.
The coalition retained the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which will work pro bono in opposing the Washington, D.C.,-based Immigration Reform Law Institute, the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The institute previously supported anti-illegal immigration ordinances in Riverside and Hazelton, Pa., but both towns were ultimately forced to abandon them. The Defense and Education Fund played a pivotal role in one of those cases, when U.S. District Judge James M. Munley overturned the Hazelton ordinance by ruling it unconstitutional, and Riverside rescinded its ordinance when township officials said the town could not afford the legal costs of defending it.
The lawsuit was filed in June against defendants with Connolly Properties, a locally based real-estate investment and management company that oversees apartments here and in East Orange and Allentown, Pa. The plaintiffs in the case are Maribel DelRio-Mocci, a former leasing agent for Connolly, and two current tenants of Plainfield Connolly Properties, Linda Elliot and Robert Bolmer, who allege that the real-estate group has run and continues to run a scheme to lease rental units to undocumented residents. The plaintiffs contend this is done "through a pattern of encouraging and inducing illegal aliens to reside in the United States and harboring those aliens from official detection in knowing and/or reckless disregard of the fact that such aliens were present in the United States in violation of federal law," according to the language of the suit. Connolly, an official for which declined comment for this story, has until Sept. 15 to file a formal response with the U.S. District Court of New Jersey in Newark.
Setting legal precedent?
The lawsuit is unique in that it ranks among the first ever to cite RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) statutes, which the federal government has traditionally used mostly to fight organized crime, in order to declare Connolly as being tantamount to a criminal-harboring enterprise. The lawsuit also alleges multiple violations of the Fair Housing Act, claiming that Connolly agents deliberately segregate tenants by race and nation of origin in order to reduce the risk of illegal aliens being discovered by authorities.
Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund Executive Director Cesar Perales said the potential ramifications regarding the outcome of the suit are enormous.
"The civil rights implications are very clear, and they go well beyond Plainfield," Perales said. "If this concept that anyone who rents to undocumented people is harboring (criminals) ... and violating federal law, this is going to affect landlords and immigrants all over this country."
Immigration Reform Law Institute Staff Attorney Garrett Roe would not comment extensively on the specifics of the case but agreed that a powerful precedent could be set by its outcome.
"The ideal situation," Roe said, "is that small towns around the country that are dealing with the same problem (of illegal immigration), hopefully they're going to see this,and it will help them deal with such issues."
Along with RICO and Fair Housing Act violations, the lawsuit claims that illegal aliens were "encouraged or allowed to use false identity documents" by Connolly when applying for housing, along with claims that such tenants were not subject to the same maximum occupancy restrictions to which legal citizens were subject. The suit also claims that some legal citizens were falsely informed that no vacancies were available in certain buildings and goes on to cite substandard living conditions existing at some Connolly properties, specifically Plainfield's Central Avenue and Pingry Arms Apartment Complexes.
Tenants say conditions are bad
Two tenants with 25 years of combined residence at Pingry Arms independently claimed some of the allegations in the lawsuit are true, specifically echoing assertions that the demographics have changed and the conditions have deteriorated at the building rapidly since Connolly acquired the property almost directly across from City Hall on Crescent Avenue several years ago.
"They've (Connolly) been getting away with murder," said Troy Moyd, 68, and a resident at Pingry since 1995. "Since they got this place in the last four or five years, the place has been going downhill ever since. They don't believe in fixing anything."
Moyd cited water leaks in his bathroom and ceiling, mouse and roach infestations, and other factors, closely mirroring claims from Bolmer outlined in the lawsuit. Another tenant, who asked only to be identified by his first name, Roger, cited drug dealing and urination in the hallways.
Both men also said they believe Connolly is guilty of deliberately mistreating non-Hispanic tenants in order to homogenize the building by driving other tenants out, even claiming that some phone calls made for maintenance are answered by company employees who claim not to speak English.
However, Clarence McGhie, a retiree who lives in a Central Avenue residence just steps away from the Central Avenue Apartments, said he is not aware of any adverse effects to his neighborhood caused by the nearby Connolly property.
"We're talking about a complex that's maybe one-fifth of a mile from my house, and it's not like I'm ever looking over my shoulder to see who's coming and going," McGhie said. "I've lived here for almost three years and had no problems at all."
McGhie said he isn't sure just what to make of the lawsuit but said he did believe many area immigrants — legal or otherwise — are only looking to improve their lives.
"I don't think it's a black-and-white issue or yes-and-no issue," McGhie said. "But a lot seem to be hard workers who may not be getting a fair deal."
Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said while she is unaware of the specifics of the lawsuit, she will be keeping an eye on how it unfolds due to its potential to affect the city at large.
"My position, and the position of the city of Plainfield, is that we advocate equal rights for everyone and fair treatment of everyone, regardless of anyone's nationality or ethnic background," Robinson-Briggs said when asked what the city's policy on illegal immigration was. "And we are looking for any and all companies in Plainfield to be fair and equitable to all members of the community."
Company experiences huge growth
The lawsuit further alleges that Connolly was able to achieve much of its financial success — it cites the company as going from overseeing one six-unit building to operating nearly 2,000 units in 45 separate complexes during a 12-year span — due to the existence of the alleged scheme. The plaintiffs contend that Connolly "has been able to acquire extensive real-estate holdings in old and dilapidated apartment buildings, and to operate such holdings as a residential rental enterprise without investing funds correcting the ... dangerous conditions therein."
Connolly oversees at least 27 separate housing entities in Plainfield alone, according to the company's Web site, the vast majority of which are bunched in a narrow corridor spanning Seventh and Ninth streets between Spooner and Richmond avenues. The site includes photos of all 27 properties, advertising rental units ranging from one to three bedrooms and ranging in size from under 350 square feet to more than 1,500 square feet. The site also says Connolly was formed in 1996 "with the intention of making real-estate investment and ownership available to investors who may possess little or no expertise and may have limited capital for investment."
Carl Reed, broker owner for one of the city's most successful property-management firms, ERA Realty on Park Avenue, said he believes Connolly is anything but a criminal enterprise.
"I happen to know the quality of the property he (owner David Connolly) runs and manages, and they are in the top percentage of the properties in this city. He is by no means a slumlord," Reed said. "I would be honored to own some of the properties he owns; he's actually raised the real-estate values in Plainfield. And I believe most of the landlords in town feel the same way."
Reed went on to label the lawsuit as unfairly targeting one property-management company that only is mirroring what countless others do every day.
"I don't know why Connolly was singled out when a majority of landlords in this town probably have a similar situation (in renting to undocumented residents)," Reed said. "In a town that is struggling in an economic downturn, with a population that is such a melting pot, it's unfortunate."
Not all city real-estate officials echoed Reed's words, though. Jeannette Edghill, senior housing administrator for the Plainfield branch of Covenant Manor, a senior citizen apartment complex on East Front Street, said she believes Connolly properties within a block of her building are hotbeds for crime.
"I've had some question marks in my mind about this whole Connolly thing; all of a sudden they're owning all the realty in Plainfield," Edghill said. "Right across the street, there's a lot of drug-dealing going on in there. It's just constant crime."
Flor Gonzalez, director of the Latin American Coalition, said she believes the lawsuit threatens not only tenants of Connolly properties but the city's entire Latino community.
"If this lawsuit is successful, it will result in Latinos being denied the opportunity to obtain housing. It will make many landlords reluctant to rent to Latino tenants ... and have a chilling effect on all landlords," Gonzalez said. "We intend to defend our rights."
Gonzalez also said, in spite of being on the defensive, she was eager to embrace an opportunity to make a statement concerning Hispanic rights that could resound around the country.
"It's time for us to really try and make history," Gonzalez said, "to not allow this to go forward."
Mark Spivey can be reached at 908-707-3144 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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