Big controversy over Delran’s ‘biggest party’ for Carli Lloyd, as contracts come under scrutiny

The outcry over a situation ethics experts say can be all too common in N.J. has also prompted Delran’s council president to vow reforms will be made.

The offices of Center Stage Entertainment

The offices of Center Stage Entertainment in Lindenwold. (April Saul for WHYY)

Delran resident Barbara Littleton did not expect to be standing in front of a microphone at a Township Council meeting asking officials if they had engaged in illegal or unethical activity in connection with the Oct. 14 retirement celebration for hometown soccer star Carli Lloyd.

But that’s exactly what she did on Nov. 23.

Members of the Delran Football Club carry a banner for Carli Lloyd in the glow from a video monitor
Members of the Delran Football Club carry a banner for Carli Lloyd in the glow from a video monitor. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I lived in Maple Shade for 15 years and never went to a Township Council meeting,” Littleton said later. “I’ve lived here for three months … and damn!”

Littleton was inspired by Patrick Duff, a Haddon Heights activist who has accused Delran’s leaders of misconduct in connection with the event.

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The celebration to mark the retirement of Delran native Lloyd — who led the U.S. team to two Olympic gold medals and two World Cup titles, and whose 134 career international goals rank third among American players — was billed by township leaders as the “biggest party” ever held in Delran. They proclaimed Oct. 14 Carli Lloyd Day, and that night, after Lloyd tearfully thanked her admirers from a stage, Mayor Gary Catrambone announced that the field where the party took place would be renamed after the soccer star.

Barbara Littleton in front of her home
Delran resident Barbara Littleton in front of her home on Dec. 3, 2021. (April Saul for WHYY)

Duff, who grew up in Delran, is accusing township officials of conflict of interest stemming from a contract awarded to an entertainment company headed by Catrambone’s nephew, as well as bid-rigging. Duff has obtained numerous documents through the Open Public Records Act that he believes support his allegations.

Over the last two months, the controversy has bubbled over from Duff’s Rabblerouser blog and Delran’s Facebook pages into contentious council meetings in this South Jersey community of 17,000.

The day after the big event, Duff began to publicly question the finances. On Oct. 19, Lloyd weighed in on Facebook, with a post misspelling the activist’s name that has since been deleted: “For those in Delran questioning it (Patrick Duffy who isn’t even a Delran resident) Enough. Go focus on something else other than this.”

Duff said the blowback has included a death threat and one angry family member. “Carli’s page has over a million followers,” he said. “My own niece unfriended me!”

The outcry over a situation ethics experts say can be all too common in the Garden State has also prompted Delran’s council president to vow reforms will be made.

Potential problems with the procurement process

High on Duff’s list of potential transgressions was Delran’s awarding of a contract to a company associated with Mayor Catrambone’s family. Catrambone has worked as a DJ through Center Stage Entertainment, which is run by his brother, Frank Catrambone. The mayor had been listed on the company’s website as “the original DJ at Center Stage,” who “literally wrote the book on bringing parties to life in an energetic yet professional way,” until his picture and biography were recently removed from the site.

A Nevada-based company called Go Events received an entertainment contract for the Lloyd party to provide a band and DJ for $5,950. Go Events, which lists as its CEO another Frank Catrambone — the mayor’s nephew and son of the Catrambone who runs Center Stage Entertainment — also is registered to do business in New Jersey, listed at the same Lindenwold address as Center Stage.

A closeup of Delran Mayor Gary Catrambone
Delran Mayor Gary Catrambone at a recent event in the township. (April Saul for WHYY)

“Because Center Stage Entertainment is listed on the mayor’s financial disclosure statement as his employer,” said Duff, “it would have been a conflict of interest for Center Stage to have received the contract.”

According to the state Department of Community Affairs, using vendors who are related to local government officials is not prohibited by the Local Public Contracts Law. That law does say, however, that “no local government officer … shall act in a manner where he, a member of his immediate family, or a business organization in which he has an interest has a direct or indirect financial or personal involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment.”

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At a Nov. 9 council meeting, Catrambone said he was “not in any way financially involved” in the contract awarded to Go Events because his nephew did not live in his household. He did not respond to an interview request from WHYY News.

Delran Council President Tyler Burrell said that in light of the situation, “in our continued efforts to work for the people of Delran, Council will be expanding our anti-nepotism policy and searching for an ethics attorney.”

Duff is also accusing Delran officials of engaging in bid splitting, the intentional dividing of orders for supplies and equipment into smaller quantities to avoid the statutory threshold for advertised competition, which is prohibited by New Jersey Local Public Contracts law. In the Delran party planning, this would have meant that no bids could have exceeded the lawful threshold of $44,000.

​​The Moorestown-based entertainment company Starlite submitted a bid of $61,500 to Delran for services for the event. Duff cited a Sept. 24 email in which Delran recreation advisory committee chairman Colin Rafferty told Starlite that the bidding threshold was “an issue” and a Sept. 28 email in which he told Starlite, “The township solicitor has directed me that it must be two separate contracts.” Starlite responded by submitting a bid of $39,000 for stage, lighting, and sound, and helping to arrange for a Delaware company, Video Walltronics Inc., to be paid $22,500 for video screens for the event.

Duff called the messages “smoking gun” evidence that township officials attempted to thwart open bidding for the contract.

When asked by both Duff and Littleton at the council meeting if he had instructed Rafferty to split the bids, Township Solicitor Salvatore Siciliano refused to answer.

Activist Patrick Duff addresses a Delran Township City Council meeting
Activist Patrick Duff addresses a Delran Township City Council meeting about the Carli Lloyd retirement party on Nov. 23, 2021. (April Saul for WHYY)

Littleton wasn’t having it. “All you’re doing,” she told the solicitor, “is prolonging it instead of just being transparent and giving us the answers we’re looking for so we can move forward! I’m trying to be professional, but I’m aggravated.”

The next speaker, Ron Vandermark, a former firefighter and 40-year Delran resident, told Siciliano “the arrogance that comes from you is just unbelievable … Why can’t you just put this to bed?”

Burrell directed questions about the procurement process to Siciliano.

Siciliano said he was too busy to comment for this story.

‘Who’s watching?’

Although not familiar with the Delran situation, Renee Steinhagen, executive director of New Jersey Appleseed, a nonprofit public interest law center, said, “Unfair patronage and discrimination is common in a small town with smaller contracts and fewer people … and there’s a good chance of it going on without being challenged. Who’s watching? Who has the resources to challenge?”

Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, had also not heard about the Delran controversy, but noted that while “plenty of towns do things the right way and are sticklers … there are other towns that are looking to cut corners.”

“When people think the public isn’t paying attention, that’s when it happens,” he said.

Retired insurance broker John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, has spent years fighting for more transparency in the state.

For Paff, the question for New Jersey residents is not whether ethics violations are occurring, but who’s minding the store.

“It’s endemic, it’s everywhere,” said Paff. “People are naïve. They think there is some sort of apparatus in Trenton that if they are alerted to corruption, they will come and clutch their pearls and say, ‘We’ll take care of this right away.’”

Paff said investigations can be initiated by a complaint to a local finance board or a county prosecutor — and are then followed by years of silence.

“We have a system that can take three to five years, and it’s completely secret until the results are known,” he said. “I’ve seen situations where the person accused of the ethics infraction is able to be elected multiple times during the investigation. And when they do find ethics infractions, they don’t tell anybody except for the parties!”

Paff cited a recent case in Woodlynne in which he lodged a complaint against a councilman who voted to pay his wife for various jobs over a nine-year period and ultimately paid only a $2,300 penalty.

“If they really wanted ethics reform in New Jersey,” Paff said, “they’d add a few zeroes to those penalties and they would have a full staff of professional ethics investigators who would really put the fear of God into municipal officials.”

For Barbara Littleton, there is no turning back from community activism.

“I will be more involved now,” she said, “because I don’t trust them to do anything.”

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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