State's commerce secretary steps down William Watley's former aide is under investigation. Watley faces questions about how he handled government money.

Posted: July 15, 2004

TRENTON — New Jersey Commerce Secretary William Watley resigned yesterday amid a criminal investigation into his former top aide and allegations that he tried to steer government money to a business connected to the two of them.

Watley, 57, had led the Commerce and Economic Growth Commission since Gov. McGreevey appointed him in January 2002.

For the last month and a half, the state has been investigating former chief of staff Lesly Devereaux's expenses and payments to several of her relatives.

Last week, an $11.5 million government construction loan about to be given to a partnership that included a business affiliated with Watley and Devereaux was canceled after state officials discovered the relationship. Neither disclosed the relationship on forms state officials must fill out that show their potential conflicts of interest.

"Despite the swirl of speculation and innuendo my departure may generate, I leave this office with my pride intact, confident in knowing that an objective evaluation of my tenure will confirm that I discharged my duties responsibly," Watley wrote to McGreevey.

From the outset, Watley seemed an odd choice to lead the department, which is supposed to champion the state's economic development efforts.

Watley was, and remains, senior pastor of St. James A.M.E. Church in Newark and has no business experience outside operating the church's nonprofit organizations. McGreevey and Watley have cited Watley's leadership of the church, its growth, and his creation of a school and a large feeding program for the homeless as his relevant experience.

When Watley was appointed, business leaders were beside themselves and complained that McGreevey had intended to slight them while rewarding a supporter.

Watley continued to run the sizable church operations. He was able to keep that job and draw a cabinet salary of about $140,000 a year by forgoing his pay at the church.

McGreevey has always maintained that Watley was a good steward of the department.

"It is with great sadness that I accept Dr. Watley's resignation today," McGreevey said. "He has made an invaluable contribution to the citizens of New Jersey, and I fully expect he will continue to actively advise this administration as he returns to his spiritual mission."

Shortly before Watley's resignation was announced, Guy Gregg (R., Sussex), leader of the Assembly Republican Conference, urged Watley to step down.

"For a man who entered this job with questionable qualifications, the time has come for a change," he said.

Contact staff writer Mitch Lipka at 609-989-8990 or mlipka@phillynews.com.

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