A former state Assemblyman from Essex County who has been embroiled in controversy in recent years has been indicted for allegedly defrauding the city of Orange while he held a municipal job that he was unlawfully appointed to, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday.
Willis Edwards III, who served one term in the Assembly as a Democrat in the early 2000s, faces 28 charges, including conspiracy to defraud Orange, theft from a federally funded local government, wire fraud, bribery, conspiracy to commit mail fraud and tax fraud.
The indictment is the latest development in a federal investigation that has loomed over Orange in recent years.
Edwards was previously named as one of a dozen people in the FBI’s search warrants of the Orange public library and City Hall in 2016 and 2017 related to the agency’s investigation of theft, fraud, extortion, and misuse of government funds. The former executive director of the library, Timur Davis, pleaded guilty earlier this year to making false statements to a federal agency in connection to the Saturday literacy program.
Edwards, who now lives in Georgia, is the latest to be charged in connection with federal investigation.
The indictment centers on Edwards using his position as deputy business administrator from 2012 to 2015, which multiple courts ruled he was appointed to the position unlawfully by Mayor Dwayne Warren, to reap tens of thousands of dollars in an extensive kickback scheme.
In order to do so, he paid his friend, Franklyn Ore, to create Urban Partners, a sham company Edwards allegedly used as the deputy business administrator in the various schemes outlined in the indictment to funnel money to himself. Ore was the principal of Urban Partners and paid Edwards a significant amount of money the company brought in through allegedly defrauding Orange, according to the indictment. Ore pleaded guilty to fraud, misapplying funds and conspiracy earlier this year.
In one instance, according to the indictment, Edwards allegedly had phony documents submitted to Essex County to ensure Urban Partners would receive money from a Saturday literacy program at the city’s public library despite not providing any services, according to the indictment.
Edwards, acting as the deputy business administrator, allegedly had the library pay Urban Partners approximately $36,000 between May 2015 and August 2015, even though “Edwards knew that Urban Partners had not provided such services,” the indictment says.
Edwards used his “influence as an Orange public official” to allegedly divert money to Urban Partners for a city literacy program and two development projects, according to the indictment.
Edwards is also charged with tax fraud in part for not reporting the money he allegedly received in 2015 in from the kickback scheme outlined in the indictment.
As the deputy city administrator, Edwards earned $268,000 in salary from 2012 to 2015. After a judge determined he was appointed to the position illegally by the mayor, he was ordered to pay back the money, but he has not done so, according to an Orange spokesman.
The mayor said in a statement Wednesday that “if true, the alleged conduct would have been a strict departure from the standard of behavior I set for all employees.”
“My administration continues to cooperate with authorities regarding this matter and, as always, remains committed to serving Orange residents and taxpayers with the highest levels of professionalism and integrity,” Mayor Warren said in the statement.
Edwards, according to the indictment, also used his pursuit of a graduate degree as a scheme to allegedly defraud Orange.
He allegedly had the city hire a consultant, according to the indictment, who in return wrote academic papers that Edwards later plagiarized and submitted to his professors as his own. Edwards also allegedly had unnamed Orange city employees create a fraudulent memo in order to get Orange to pay for some of his classes, according to the indictment.
Brandon Minde, Edwards’ attorney, said Edwards denies the allegations laid out in the lengthy indictment.
“This indictment is an example of throwing everything against the wall to see if anything sticks,” Minde said.
A date for Edwards’ arraignment has not yet been scheduled.
Edwards also came under scrutiny earlier this year when NJ Advance Media reported that $21,000 was unaccounted from an election fund for his campaign for East Orange mayor more than 10 years ago in which Edwards ended up not running.