The state Senate announced Monday it will hold hearings to investigate hidden-camera videos that appear to show local leaders of New Jersey's top teachers union talking about protecting teachers accused of abusing students.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the state's top lawmaker, told NJ Advance Media on Monday morning he asked the chairs of the Senate education and labor committees to convene a joint hearing.
The hearings were announced an hour later, but the committee chairs said they have not yet set any dates.
"It is absolutely unacceptable," Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said about the videos in a phone interview. "It's offensive to listen to the way the leadership -- I'm not talking about the state leadership, I'm talking about the local leadership -- handled that."
Sweeney added that if the leaders have "devised a way to get around reporting properly incidents in schools where kids have been physically assaulted, it's a problem."
"It's a real problem," he said. "And I think it's enough of issue when you have local leadership bragging about how they get around things, and how they can fix things, that it needs to be reviewed to make sure it stops."
The videos were released by Project Veritas, a controversial conservative nonprofit run by James O'Keefe, a New Jersey native and Rutgers University graduate.
The group goes undercover to record liberal organizations and individuals in an effort to expose bias. But critics say the group uses deceptive methods and note their videos are heavily edited.
The most recent videos feature snippets of interviews with the local teachers union presidents in Hamilton (Mercer County) and Union City. The local unions are branches of the New Jersey Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state.
David Perry, head of the Hamilton Education Association, is shown saying his own job sometimes involves defending "the worst people."
In another video, Kathleen Valencia, head of the Union City Education Association, calls students "dirtbags" and mentions how a teacher who had sex with a teenage girl will not be fired because no charged were filed.
Perry and Valencia also discuss how the union hypothetically would help teachers who physically abused or threatened students.
Both union officials have been suspended. And the NJEA said in a recent statement that it is commissioning "an independent review of the practices of our local affiliates and staff."
The union said it "does not, in any instance, condone the abuse or mistreatment of children or the failure to properly report allegations of abuse."
The NJEA also criticized Project Veritas as "a political organization with a long history of releasing deceptively edited videos that later prove to have been dishonest and misleading."
Sweeney dismissed that, saying "they can attack the videos and who did the videos all they want."
"But those words were real, those actions were real, and they need to be dealt with," he told NJ Advance Media. "And the NJEA doing their own independent investigation is the fox watching the henhouse."
In response to Sweeney's comments, Steve Baker, a spokesman for the NJEA, said the union's review is to "ensure that every staff member and local affiliate leader understands and clearly communicates the responsibility of all school employees to report any suspected abuse of children."
Baker added that the union "welcomes the opportunity to discuss these important issues further with legislators in order to ensure that all public education advocates are working together to ensure the safety and wellbeing of New Jersey's students."
Sweeney and NJEA have bad blood. The union spent millions to try to unseat the Senate president in last year's election. In all, the race cost $18.7 million, making it the most expensive legislative campaign in American history.
But Sweeney rejected that calling for a hearing is an act of revenge.
"Revenge? There's no revenge. Come on," he said
"They attacked who did the video," Sweeney added. "The person who did the video doesn't have the greatest reputation. We all agree. But that video was real. They know it's real, and that's why they suspended those members."
"This is me doing my job as a legislative leader," he continued. "We hold hearings on things when we see things that are troubled."
Sweeney said a hearing is needed especially in the wake of Gov. Phil Murphy signing a law giving New Jersey's school administrators sweeping new powers to warn other districts about teachers accused of sexual abuse.
The law was enacted months after NJ Advance Media published an extensive investigation into the issue.
Radio station New Jersey 101.5-FM was the first to report that Sweeney wanted a hearing, citing a source close to the lawmaker.