South Jersey police chief charged with hate crimes now facing racial discrimination lawsuit from Black developer
"The years-long campaign against Mr. Johnson was clearly designed to make him choose between leaving the Township or bankrupting him," the lawsuit states.
The former South Jersey police chief indicted on charges of excessive force and hate crimes for allegedly assaulting a handcuffed Black teenager during a 2016 arrest is now facing a lawsuit that claims he racially discriminated against a Black real estate developer.
The developer, former NFL wide receiver Kevin Johnson, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court last week alleging that Bordentown Township officials, including Frank Nucera Jr., who is white and had held the dual positions of police chief and township administrator, delayed his real estate project for several years because of his race.
The lawsuit comes almost a year after a federal jury found Nucera guilty of lying to the FBI in his hate-crime assault trial, but declared a mistrial on two of the most serious charges against him, using excessive force and denying Timothy Stroye’s civil rights.
During the trial, prosecutors argued that Nucera had a history of making racist comments. Jurors heard secret recordings of the former chief using slurs to refer to Blacks, Mexicans, and Asians. Former township co-administrator and Clerk Colleen M. Eckert had also testified during the trial that she and Nucera referred to Johnson using the N-word.
The civil rights lawsuit, first reported by the New Jersey Law Journal, cites those allegations, and calls both Nucera and Eckert, who is also a defendant in the suit, “irredeemable racists.”
“They were words, but not actions,” Rocco Cipparone, Nucera’s attorney in the criminal case, said Friday, referring to the recordings of his client. Though he is not representing Nucera in the civil rights lawsuit, Cipparone said Nucera “has consistently denied that he had ever taken any adverse action against anyone based on race.”
Michael P. Theokas, the Bordentown Township administrator, said the township does not comment on pending litigation. Eckert could not be reached for comment. Johnson’s attorney, Larry Hardcastle, said neither of them had additional comments beyond the suit.
Johnson, who became a developer after an injury ended his professional football career in 2005, set out to build mixed-use developments in the Bordentown area. He had been a wide receiver for Syracuse University before playing seven seasons for the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Baltimore Ravens, and Detroit Lions.
But as Johnson began more than a decade ago to redevelop a 32-acre site along Route 130, he says in the suit, township officials diverted him on a years-long journey through unnecessary hurdles.
The lawsuit lays out how, according to Johnson, the township put up roadblocks to delay approvals, violated signed agreements, and forced Johnson to abide by tougher restrictions than white developers.
While the township required other sites to make 10% to 15% of all units affordable, it raised that to 25% for Johnson’s project, he alleges, “making the project almost unaffordable to build.”
Johnson also alleges that Nucera told his officers not to use Johnson’s gym, Team85 Fitness & Wellness.
He didn’t understand why “his effort to bring high-value medical services, upscale housing, and business redevelopment to an economically blighted area of Bordentown was met with such resistance,” according to the lawsuit.
But then, the lawsuit alleges, the criminal indictment of Nucera made the reason clear: “The individuals controlling Bordentown [Township] were deeply racist.”
“In the eyes of Bordentown’s decision-makers, there was a single, immutable difference between Mr. Johnson and all of those other developers,” the lawsuit says. “He is an African-American developer and the others were not.”
Court records revealed years' worth of secret recordings of Nucera, capturing racist remarks on tape. Nucera is quoted often using the N-word and comparing Black people to ISIS. Court documents also allege he instructed officers to bring dogs to certain high school basketball games to intimidate Black attendees.
Nucera resigned in January 2017 from his police and administrator positions as chief after learning the FBI was investigating him.
Johnson has been able to move forward with his development plans, as shown by Team Campus Bordentown, which consists of a health and wellness facility; a Fulton Bank; a medical building complex; and his business headquarters. His website also includes plans for Team Campus North, a sister site with more medical, office, commercial, and retail space.
“The township adopted Nucera’s racism as its official policy,” the lawsuit states. “The years-long campaign against Mr. Johnson was clearly designed to make him choose between leaving the township or bankrupting him.”