In 2010 David Goodell, while serving a four-year prison term for an assault conviction, escaped custody of a Newark halfway house run by Community Education Center (CEC). Hours later he murdered Viviana Tullli. On Thursday in court he pleaded guilty to the brutal murder. He said “I grabbed her by the neck and strangled her.” This killing, among other grave problems, formed a part of Sam Dolnick’s N. Y. Times June 2012 riveting investigative report Unlocked.
One year after the report and after two legislative hearings that promised action, Stella Tulli, sister of the deceased, had to relive the memory Thursday of Viviana’s murder with no consolation that our government was taking action to reform halfway houses and prevent such atrocities in the future. She said on Friday, “The guilty plea did awaken a lot of pain today. I feel like the day after I was told of her death. After a while people get tired of hearing about it, but I still continue.”
Stella Tulli testified with heart-felt emotion before both the Senate and Assembly hearings in July. As Sam Dolnick reports yesterday, “After the hearings, lawmakers introduced a package of more than a dozen bills that would reshape the halfway house system, increasing regulation and overhauling the contracts with the private companies. None of those bills have been approved.” Instead legislators created a task force. During the past year Stella Tulli says she e-mailed legislators who were on the hearings, and some responded but others did not.
Prior to the release of the N. Y. Times’ scathing series Governor Christie said at a CEC facility this is “someplace where the work is purely good.” “Places like this are to be celebrated.” After release of the report Christie said his administration “takes its responsibility to properly administer this program very seriously.” Nonetheless, he line-item vetoed two important provisions which Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) wrote into the Budget bill. His approach has been to sweep halfway house problems under the rug, use line item vetoes, and only grudgingly make minimal changes.
Christie’s numerous connections to CEC, CEC’s significant donations to his campaign, and Christie’s overriding belief in privatization all serve to create conflicts of interest. As the NY Times series documents, Governor Christie’s championing of CEC started in 2001 when he and law partner William Palatucci became registered lobbyists for CEC. Palatucci went on to become a vice President of CEC and close confidante of the governor. Two years ago Christie attended the wedding of the daughter of John Clancy, Founder and Chief Executive of CEC. Christie hired the groom, Samuel Vivattine, to work as an assistant in his office. Paul Krugman in a N. Y. Times piece concludes, “What we are witnessing is a corrupt nexus of privatization and patronage that is undermining government across much of our nation.”
Months after the Unlocked series, for which Sam Dolnick received the 2012 Worth Bingham Prize, he continued his reporting on halfway house problems. During the Sandy hurricane at CEC’s ill-prepared Logan House, he revealed, “The locks clicked open, male inmates burst into corridors, threatened female inmates, tore apart furniture, ripped signs inscribed with inspirational sayings from the walls, and at least 15 inmates escaped from the halfway house.” In another article he revealed that “The second-largest operator of halfway houses in New Jersey, a nonprofit, has paid its founder roughly $7 million over the past decade, and has hired several of the founder’s relatives.”
Sam Dolnick also brought to light a groundbreaking Pennsylvania study, which New Jersey authorites should review.“It concluded that inmates in halfway houses were more likely to return to crime than inmates released directly to the street, a finding that led Pennsylvania to overhaul its contracts with providers.”
So one year after the N. Y. TImes series Prosecutor Mello said he will recommend a 45-year term when David Goodell is sentenced on Sept. 13. Stella Tulli said she agreed with the plea bargained sentence which might otherwise have been 60 years. She said, “Who wants to keep rehashing the details at a trial? I figured it was best to offer 45 years and move forward.” Perhaps, it would be even easier to move forward if the Governor and legislators took the halfway house problems seriously and quickly implemented reforms.