Back when Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) was just aspiring to be mayor of Newark, the city’s police chief hated Booker’s guts so much that he allegedly punished officers who supported the up-and-coming politician.
But now, instead of settling old scores, Booker is said to be pushing for a promotion for his former foe.
In April, news broke that Newark’s recently retired public safety director, Anthony Ambrose, had risen to become Booker’s top candidate to be the next U.S. marshal for New Jersey—a highly honored job in each federal district that is charged with protecting judges and hunting down fugitives.
Booker has remained quiet about it. His office went through great lengths to evade multiple questions about it for several days last week before eventually issuing this statement from Booker’s communications director, Jeff Giertz: “It’s our office policy not to comment on speculation regarding Senate-confirmed appointments prior to the nomination of individuals to those positions.”
But behind the scenes, a group of ex-cops still seething from what they call corruption and abuse have been reaching out to senators, the White House, and the FBI to block the nomination from going forward.
“I hate the guy for what he did to me. He ruined my life, my career, my reputation,” said Anthony Buono, a Newark police captain who left the department in disgrace years after his original entanglement with Ambrose.
When Booker ran for mayor of Newark and lost in 2002, then-Lt. Buono broke ranks with the entrenched powers setup by the incumbent and advocated for Booker. According to a lawsuit he filed years later, Ambrose held a secret meeting in the basement of city hall two weeks after the election to orchestrate a retaliation campaign against any cop who supported Booker.
“They actually had a blacklist with the names of the people that supported Cory Booker, and I was the highest-ranking lieutenant at the time. They came after me for years,” he told The Daily Beast, noting that he was reassigned to oversee the municipal jail where “conditions were deplorable.”
The city settled the suit and decided to pay him $210,000, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which supported the lieutenant in his fight to practice his First Amendment fight for federally-protected speech.
In May, Buono authored a seven-page letter detailing what he described as Ambrose’s “pattern of depriving citizens and officers of their rights.” He shared a copy of the letter with The Daily Beast and said he sent it by mail to the White House and the offices of all 100 U.S. senators.
Another police officer, who wished to remain unnamed, shared copies of similar communications that had been sent to the offices of New Jersey’s two senators, Booker and Bob Menendez, as well as the FBI.
Marshall Curry, a filmmaker who produced an Oscar award-winning documentary about Booker’s experience running for office in 2002, told The Daily Beast that he remembers Newark police constantly hassling Booker. But he doesn’t know what Ambrose’s role was at the time.
“When Cory first ran for mayor, the entire NJ Democratic establishment lined up against him. So when he won, he had to figure out how to work with a lot of people who had aggressively opposed him,” Curry said. “I think he’s somebody who naturally tries to convert his enemies rather than punish them. And there are times I worry that’s naive.”
Ambrose did not respond to calls at listed numbers, nor did four attorneys who have represented him in multiple civil rights lawsuits in the past. Menendez’ office also didn’t respond to a request for comment.
But there are plenty of reasons why New Jersey politicians may be scared to publicly stick their necks out for Ambrose.
Ambrose was accused yet again in 2019 of punishing an officer for backing the wrong political candidate. In a lawsuit against the city, then-Lt. Grissel Nieves-Hall claimed that she was singled out and punished for publicly supporting civil rights attorney Shavar Jeffries for mayor—who then lost.
The new mayor, Ras Baraka, consolidated several first-responder departments and placed Ambrose as the city’s first public safety director. Nieves-Hall claimed Ambrose forced her to answer directly to a supervisor who verbally abused her for years “because of her loyalty and support of Jeffries.”
That case also settled. The lieutenant’s attorney declined to speak or make Nieves-Hall available for comment, citing a nondisclosure agreement.
Over the years, several other former Newark police officers sued their boss and the city over heinous allegations ranging from spying on employees and intimidating them in their personal lives. In separate lawsuits in 2007 and 2008, Officers Louis Wohltman and Philip Wesley Smith claimed Ambrose allowed the department to use unofficial subpoenas to hunt them down.
According to their lawsuits, the police department illegally obtained electronic data from a website in order to identify them as the anonymous commenters who ridiculed Ambrose and other leaders on a blog, NewarkSpeaks.com. The city eventually settled with Wohltman for $147,325, according to the ACLU, which supported that free speech lawsuit as well.
Booker himself was the subject of surveillance by the Newark Police Department as well, according to two news stories that ran in The Star-Ledger newspaper on June 4 and 8 in 1999. That year, while Booker was a young city councilman, police tapped his phone and recorded his calls to constituents, family, and friends for 10 days in May, according to reporter Nikita Stewart. That stretch happened just two weeks after Ambrose was named acting police chief.
At the time, the department called it an error. Booker called it “gross negligence… or the serious misuse of power.”