Passaic prosecutor Valdes had great promise. Did ego send the wheels flying off? (2024)

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When Camelia Valdes took over the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office in 2009, many thought it marked a new day for a troubled agency that had been crippled by budget cuts, carved up by layoffs and crushed beneath stacks of internal lawsuits.

Plucked from the ranks of the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey by then-Gov. Jon Corzine, Valdes brought an impressive resume: In addition to her work as a federal prosecutor, she had served as a Newark municipal prosecutor, a state deputy attorney general and assistant counsel to former governors Christine Todd Whitman and Donald DiFrancesco.

Valdes also broke barriers. When the state Senate confirmed her in June 2009, she became the first Latina county prosecutor in state history, the first woman prosecutor in Passaic County and the first lead prosecutor of Dominican ancestry in the country.

Outside observers lauded Corzine's choice. Valdes said she was ready for the work.

But the hope and promise did not last. Now, 13 years into her tenure, Valdes finds herself buffeted by multiple conflagrations, including lawsuits alleging employee abuse, an unprecedented no-confidence vote by the county's police unions and a burgeoning controversy over her pulling the plug on investigations into corrupt Paterson police officers. This string of stumbles has threatened to collapse her reign.

Detractors say Valdes' problems are self-made. Current and former employees — many of whom requested anonymity for fear of retaliation — offered stinging assessments of how Valdes poisoned her own well with what they describe as her massive ego, micromanaging tendencies and savage vindictive streak.

Prosecutor’s office staff members said Valdes refers to herself as “the boss” or "the queen" and often reminds her workers how much power she has. Several people said she doesn't like being spoken to by employees unless she speaks to them first, and others claimed she torpedoed job opportunities for them once they left the office.

Police officers from local departments have long griped in private about Valdes' policies, procedures and priorities. Many whispered that she had little interest in police work and was more concerned about preserving her reputation to advance her career.

But those conversations stayed buried in bars and break rooms until earlier this year, when the dam of silence burst and a torrent of complaints and lawsuits against the prosecutor tumbled forth. Many in law enforcement said it was about time.

"She's as vicious as they come," said Frank Feenan, a former prosecutor's office captain who retired in 2013. "She's the most unprofessional, unworthy prosecutor I could ever imagine."

Jim Beatrice, another retired captain with the prosecutor's office, echoed Feenan. Beatrice said he bashed heads with Valdes frequently over her policies and called her a “micromanager who rules by fear.”

"She thinks she's above everybody else," Beatrice said, "and if you didn't do what she said or what she wanted, you got punished.”

Valdes declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.

But her supporters — many from the highest ranks of the county's Democratic establishment — have circled the wagons around the embattled prosecutor. In their eyes, Valdes is a straight shooter who has become the target of a smear campaign engineered by Republican politicians and her own angry workers.

"I think she's gotten a bad rap from disgruntled employees for their own selfish reasons," said John Currie, leader of the county's Democratic committee. "I think she's done a good job, she's run a good, clean office ... I think it's more about insider office politics than anything else."

Democratic Sheriff Richard Berdnik said in a statement that Valdes has always displayed her "competence as a true professional." And Anthony De Nova, Passaic County's longtime administrator, said he was shocked by the harsh words Valdes' employees have for her.

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"That’s not the person I know," De Nova said. "It's not close to any experience that I have ever witnessed or personally had with the prosecutor ... I truly find her to be a professional person who wants to do the right thing."

New Jersey Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, a Democrat who represents the state's 35th Legislative District, first met Valdes as a student at Kean University in 1996. She said she immediately pegged Valdes as a "strong woman of color who was serving in a space of promise for criminal justice reforms and equity in the legal system."

"It was her passion and her understanding that there were some structural barriers for people of color," Sumter said. “All of us are human and may not get everything right every day. But I do think every day, she steps into her role with a lens toward justice.”

The assemblywoman said Valdes should resist calls to step down following news that the prosecutor’s office repeatedly abandoned criminal investigations into several Paterson police officers so corrupt they nicknamed themselves "the robbery squad." The cops later admitted in federal court that they robbed and beat city residents.

State Sen. Kristin Corrado, a Totowa Republican and former Passaic County clerk who represents the state’s 40th Legislative District, is among those who called on Valdes to step down.

Corrado, who was already blocking Valdes’ appointment to a third five-year term, said Valdes no longer has the trust of the public or the police.

But Sumter does not think Valdes should listen.

“I do believe in justice, and nothing has been proven to invalidate the work she’s done or her commitment to serving,” Sumter said.

Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh would not answer directly when asked if he thought Valdes should have pursued the investigations into his city's officers. But she should not leave over the resulting controversy, he said.

"I can't say she should resign," Sayegh said. "She's been very responsive, she's always been forthright."

Dean Cioppa, head of the police union that represents about 74 prosecutor's office employees, said he respects the politicians' opinions. "But they're not on the inside watching people leave constantly because of the way they're being treated," he said. "It's more than just disgruntled employees."

Cioppa called Valdes an ineffective boss who won't delegate responsibility, doesn't listen to the needs of her people and micromanages cases to the frustration of her workers.

"It's time for a change," Cioppa said. "I don't see how the people of Passaic County — and the victims — will have any confidence going forward in how the cases are handled."

A promising start

Few people knew who Valdes was when Corzine first nominated her in 2009 to serve as Passaic County prosecutor. But she had quite a backstory.

Valdes was born in the Bronx on Sept. 5, 1971 to Dominican parents. Her family moved to Newark when she was a child and she is a product of that city's public schools, according to a biography posted on the prosecutor's office website.

Her parents impressed upon her the importance of education, since they had been unable to progress in their own studies. Her father left school after the second grade, Valdes told The Record in 2009. Her mother left after eighth grade.

In a March 2021 interview with CBS News, Valdes said she became an advocate in her youth out of necessity. "I was translating for everybody in the building, so I learned at a young age the power of having a voice," she said.

She also recounted the story of a run-in with a school guidance counselor who tried to dissuade her from becoming an attorney.

"She said to me, 'You know, the law is a male dominated field, so you should consider being a teacher or you should consider being a nurse,'" Valdes told CBS. "I did what I do when I hear something that I don't like; I just completely disregarded that."

Valdes has said she grew up poor, and she told The Record that her parents expected her to finish high school, get married, have children and raise a family. But that wasn't her path.

A rising star

Valdes graduated from Barringer High School in Newark and then attended Seton Hall University, where she earned her bachelor's degree in sociology in 1993. Three years later, she earned a law degree from Rutgers Law School-Newark. And in May 2001, she received a Master of Laws in trial advocacy from Temple University.

She rose quickly through the legal world, serving as a Newark municipal prosecutor and a deputy attorney general in the New Jersey Attorney General's Office, where she prosecuted white-collar crime and litigated cases involving law enforcement issues.

She also served as an assistant governor's counsel to Gov. Whitman and acting Gov. DiFrancesco.

In 2001, Chris Christie, then-U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, hired Valdes as an assistant federal prosecutor.

Eight years later, when Valdes was sworn in as Passaic County prosecutor, Christie said there had been a "significant lack" of minority representation in the legal profession when he took over the U.S. Attorney's office. The justice system had to make sure "the door is open to everyone."

As an assistant U.S. Attorney, Valdes prosecuted "complex federal crimes that included human trafficking, health care fraud, financial offenses, and violent crimes," according to her prosecutor's office biography. She also helped secure convictions and guilty pleas in several high-profile cases, including a $5 million Medicare fraud case out of Prospect Park and a Wisconsin man who threatened to set off a dirty bomb at Giants Stadium.

But she was still unknown when Corzine tapped her to replace then-prosecutor James F. Avigliano in March 2009.

'An excellent candidate'

When Avigliano stepped down after one term, he left in his wake an office torn asunder by troubles.

Avigliano had made deep cuts to both the prosecutor's office and the Sheriff's Department thanks to a budget crisis he inherited. A spate of lawsuits followed, including a $1 million sexual discrimination suit filed by two former agents and a union head. The political fallout led Corzine to decide against granting him a second term.

At the time, politicians and observers praised Corzine's decision to switch gears.

"I've met the woman and she's an excellent candidate," then-state Sen. John A. Girgenti, a Hawthorne Democrat, said about Valdes in an interview with The Record. "I think she'll be an excellent prosecutor, given her background."

Hispanic organizations also lauded the choice.

George Rios, then-head of the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey, called her confirmation "one more step in our nation's pursuit of equality and diversity."

Elsa Mantilla, who at the time was deputy mayor of Paterson and a Dominican activist, said Valdes was both proud and modest.

"I am so proud that we have another Latina who is moving up," said Mantilla, who last week declined to offer a follow-up comment on Valdes' tenure. "This is a very good step for our community."

The state Senate confirmed Valdes on June 26, 2009.

Corzine said at her swearing-in that he picked Valdes because he favored diversity in government and she "embraces excellence."

"She reveres the law, and she is an individual who believes in equality under the law," Corzine told a packed auditorium.

Valdes sat next to Corzine and clutched the hand of her then-husband, Frank. In her speech, she thanked her family and colleagues, including the Hispanic Bar Association (which she once led) and her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Years later, she would tell CBS News that she always wears pearls in homage to her college pals.

Valdes also said she was proud that she could remain compassionate while still being a tough prosecutor.

"I hope it is by the work that I do that I am measured," she said. "Not by my age, gender, or ethnicity. I promise to work hard for the people of Passaic County and always maintain my integrity."

The wheels fall off

Valdes spent her first weeks in office taking inventory of what investigators were working on, responding to issues and considering the policies already in place.

"Some things don't need to be changed at all," Valdes said in a July 2009 interview with The Record. "Some things will be changed. But I am not going to start making wholesale changes just for the sake of making them."

Cutting violent crime was her first priority, she said.

Her office continued to do typical Prosecutor's Office things, such as breaking up drug rings; arresting gunmen, murderers and purveyors of domestic violence; and rooting out corrupt local police officers.

Meanwhile, Valdes hosted vigils for victims of violent crime, consoled in court the family of a Newark police officer murdered in 2011 outside a Paterson strip club and hosted forums on domestic violence and hate crimes.

The single mother of two autistic daughters, Isabela and Elsa, she sought to raise awareness about autism and special needs education, according to her biography. Her LinkedIn profile lists animal welfare, civil rights, humanitarian relief, human rights and poverty alleviation as causes in which she is interested.

In October 2011, Hispanic Business Magazine named Valdes one of the 100 most influential Hispanics in the nation. Two months later, Leonel Fernandez, president of the Dominican Republic, named her as one of the 100 most influential Dominicans living abroad.

Sumter, the Democratic assemblywoman, said Valdes also helped improve community relations in 2012 when she opened the prosecutor's office’s doors to community leaders so they would better understand the agency's inner workings.

"That meeting was a pivotal point for us because we had some grassroots folks working in the community who really did not know how it intersected with safe streets, investigations, what can be said and what can't be said," Sumter said. "It demystified what's behind those doors and educated the community on the role of local police and prosecutors and how they work together.”

But somewhere along the line, the wheels began to fall off.

Few people would speak on the record about Valdes. Some did not want to dredge up ghosts of the past. Others remain afraid that her wrath would affect their current jobs — especially those who work in the legal field.

"Nobody in the right mind is going to talk about her," said one North Jersey attorney who once worked with her.

But some, including Beatrice, the retired detective captain, spoke about their experiences. Beatrice, who retired in 2013 after more than two decades with the prosecutor's office, said he first met Valdes in 2009 when she was confirmed to the post.

"At first I thought she was nice," Beatrice said. "Then she got sworn in, and the game changed. You couldn't talk to her — if you saw her in the hallway you couldn't have a conversation with her. If you engaged in a conversation, you caught [expletive] for it afterward."

Cioppa, the union head, recalled a similar experience where he was once scolded by his supervisor for offering an unsolicited "good morning" to Valdes in the hallway. "I got called into the office 45 minutes later and was told not to speak to her unless she spoke to me," Cioppa said. "Who would do that?"

Beatrice said the office has descended into chaos under her reign because Valdes "really didn't know what she was doing." He admitted the two frequently butted heads — he blamed her tendency to micromanage and refusal to take advice from her subordinates.

Because of their strained relationship, Beatrice said Valdes' staff forced him to fill her car with gas every week. He said he was also told to pick up her lunch once, but he walked out of the restaurant without the food because she didn't pay beforehand and he didn't believe she would pay him back.

Some of these allegations sound extraordinarily similar to those laid out in an October lawsuit brought by a prosecutor’s office employee named Daisy Vargas.

The two became friendly while Valdes went through what the lawsuit described as a "very nasty divorce."

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But Vargas has sued Valdes for allegedly forcing her to perform a litany of personal tasks that had nothing to do with her job. This included twice helping Valdes move, catering the prosecutor’s parties on her own dime, putting up her Christmas decorations, cleaning her attic, shampooing her rugs, pulling dead rats from her garbage cans and dropping $1,000 on a deposit for Valdes’ father’s funeral.

When Vargas ended the friendship, Valdes allegedly retaliated by creating a work environment so hostile it pushed Vargas into the hospital with severe depression.

The prosecutor has faced other issues, including a stunning, unprecedented "no confidence" vote taken in July by representatives of police unions.

The reps demanded Valdes resign and said in an open letter that the prosecutor had ineffectively staffed her office, devoted resources to investigating her own officers while neglecting criminal investigations and demonstrated "little concern for the effective administration of her duties."

"Her shocking lack of insight and judgment into her own actions renders her ill-suited for this crucial leadership position," the letter read.

Beatrice said that even if Valdes resigned tomorrow, it would take years to rebuild the office.

“They’re going to have to find a strong prosecutor who wants to come in,” Beatrice said. “It’s going to take a long time to fix. She’s really ruined the reputation of that place.”

Passaic prosecutor Valdes had great promise. Did ego send the wheels flying off? (2024)
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