’Lavish’ life of political prince crumbles

'Lavish' life of political prince crumbles

02 Ağustos 2018 - 02:00

Under a hot July sun last year, Kiburi Tucker – the son of late political icon Donald Tucker and state Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker – stood in a sharp blue suit before a coterie of the state's political brass and announced the culmination of a six-year effort: A 42-unit apartment complex bearing his family name that would transform Newark's South Ward.

This was a chance to tell a different narrative of the neighborhood, his close friend, Mayor Ras Baraka said that day.

And in many ways, it was a turning point for Tucker, too.

More than 20 years ago, Tucker served four years in prison for his involvement in a drive-by shooting. In the years since his release in 2001 and the death of his father in 2005, Tucker had begun to rebuild on the heels of his family's legacy. He started a political consulting business, headed his father's nonprofit community center and hoped to inch the city closer to its comeback.

"Your father is looking down," Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker, D-28th Dist., told her son that day. "He had high hopes for you, and on this day, you have brought them to fruition."

But the new chapter written at the corner of Bergen Street and Lehigh Avenue that July would soon be tainted. Less than a month later, Tucker signed a federal plea agreement, admitting he embezzled $332,116 from The Centre, Inc., a nonprofit started by his father, and lied about his six-figure consulting income, gleaned in part from political campaigns in Newark and Orange.


Kiburi Tucker leaves the courthouse with his wife after being sentenced for tax evasion and wire fraud at the Federal Courthouse in Newark on April 18, 2018. (Alexandra Pais | For NJ Advance Media)

Now Tucker, 44, is going back to prison. He will turn himself in on Monday and serve more than three years behind bars.

"I'm extremely embarrassed and ashamed of what I've done," Tucker said in court during his April sentencing. "I'm so sorry."

Sentencing court documents in Tucker's recent case, obtained through a public records request, tell a story of a man who was born into political prominence – and the favors that come with it – but was tempted by the streets he called home.

The records, which included letters from his mother, wife and friends in the community, as well as additional details from prosecutors and Tucker's defense attorney, reveal that the son of Newark royalty appeared to find redemption, only to break the law again.

Federal prosecutors said Tucker siphoned money from The Centre, a childcare nonprofit, to fund his "extravagant" lifestyle and gambling and alcohol addictions. They said Tucker flaunted his material possessions on social media and acted with a consistent "contempt for the law," court documents show.

Tucker used portions of The Centre funding to pay for his penthouse apartment in East Orange, furnish the apartment with a $2,991 white sectional sofa, a $2,600 60-inch TV and entertainment system, and fund his travels to Hawaii and Puerto Rico, federal prosecutors said.

"The bank accounts for The Centre were running amok, the bank had to shut down the account, the books were not being managed. Money was flying out the door," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacques Pierre said during Tucker's sentencing. 


On March, 18, 2006, The Centre was named the Donald K. Tucker Complex in honor of the late councilman Donald Tucker. Then Newark Mayor Sharpe James spoke as Cleopatra G. Tucker (C), then-Gov. Jon Corzine and other officials listen. (Mitsu Yasukawa / The Star Ledger)

The Centre closed in 2015, he said.

Despite his financial crimes, friends and family who know Tucker described him as a kind, compassionate and loving man who fell off the tracks and felt the pressure to fill the void left by his father's death. Tucker, they say, is taking responsibility for his actions and getting help for his addictions.

"Although I am disappointed and saddened by my son's (sic) conduct what I'm witnessing today is exactly what I witnessed 20 years ago," Assemblywoman Tucker wrote in a letter to Judge Jose Linares, according to a court memorandum. "He has accepted responsibility for his actions and has realized something about himself that he may have never realized if this didn't happen."

Her office did not respond to a request for comment. 

"Kiburi is an individual with rare talents and unlimited potential," former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., wrote to Linares in another letter. "The community is best served by returning him to the community as a leader and investor as soon as possible."


(Source: Federal court records)

The pressure and perks of political prominence

Born the same year his father was elected to the Newark City Council, Tucker attended St. Benedict's Prep and grew up among the city's political elite.

But as he transitioned to young adulthood, Tucker found himself "too often in the wrong company," a close friend wrote to Judge Linares. 

He began dealing drugs as a teenager, court records show.

Tucker's father, who would become the city's longest-serving councilman, was also elected to the state Assembly in 1997.

"As a young man, we began to notice him trying to distance himself from the overwhelming pressure and expectations of being a prominent politician's (sic) son," Assemblywoman Tucker wrote.

But growing up in the upper echelons of political power afforded Tucker opportunities.

His father was a commissioner on the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, a taxpayer-funded agency for wastewater treatment, and secured a $25,218-a-year job for then 20-year-old Tucker in 1994, as a "helper" for the agency. 

''They knew it was my son. That's the way people get hired at Passaic Valley,'' Tucker Sr. told The Star-Ledger in 1995. ''The entry-level jobs are where you find patronage jobs.''

The position wasn't enough to keep away trouble.

Three years later, in 1997, Kiburi pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and drug possession charges. He served four years in prison.


Newark 06-01-91. (LEFT TO RIGHT) Kiburi Tucker, Donald Tucker, and Mrs. Cleopatra Tucker. (Wally Hennig for The Star-Ledger)

'The sky was the limit'

Redemption for Tucker, despite his conviction, appeared within reach.

After his release from prison in 2001, he became active in his community and created various businesses, his attorney said in court documents.

He opened a clothing store catering to executive men and women and sponsored jazz events on city sidewalks, his friends recalled in letters. He also talked publicly about recidivism and the importance of helping convicted felons transition back into society, his mother said. 

"His father and I were extremely proud, and to be honest, amazed at how fast he managed to get his life back on track," Assemblywoman Tucker wrote. "The sky was the limit and he was proving that everyday."

He eventually returned to work at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission after his conviction. He worked there until last November – a week before his first court appearance – when he resigned from his $113,000 job as a senior external relations representative.

The death of Kiburi's father in 2005 only propelled him further, as he fought to preserve his family's legacy, the Assemblywoman said.

Kiburi was listed as a board member at The Centre as early as 2006, eventually rising to executive director shortly after his father's death, records show. The Centre received a portion of its funding from federal grants.

Tucker even considered running for Newark City Council and took out petitions, but couldn't clear his criminal record.

U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J. who was then New Jersey's Assembly Majority Leader, asked outgoing Gov. Richard Codey to pardon Tucker in 2006. At the time, Codey told The Star-Ledger the pardon application arrived too late to be vetted before he left office.

There's no record that Tucker was ever pardoned – and he never ran for council.

But he continued working behind the scenes.



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