A $229,000 grant earmarked to save a rundown Camden home where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived as a young seminary student in 1950 was somehow diverted to the Fire Department, city officials say.

The misdirected money came to light when an activist who has been fighting to save the home in the Bergen Square neighborhood filed a public records request. Now, a judge has ordered Camden officials to turn over documents showing what happened to the funds.

The disclosure at a hearing last week before Superior Court Judge Deborah Silverman Katz came amid efforts to have the house declared a state historic landmark. The three-story house at 753 Walnut St. has fallen into disrepair and has been vacant for years.

At issue is an award from the city's 2017 Community Development Block Grant program designating the grant to preserve the King House. The project has been delayed and bogged down in controversy, and Patrick Duff, a local historian and activist, filed requests under the state's Open Public Records Act seeking documents on the status of the grant.

Like many large cities,  Camden receives millions of dollars annually in grants from the federal government for programs that benefit low- and moderate-income residents. The city in turn disburses the funds to nonprofit housing and community development groups.

After Duff filed more than a dozen requests with the city, his attorney, Donald M. Doherty, sued. At the hearing Friday, Katz, according to an audio recording of the arguments Duff obtained from the court records office, concluded that Duff was entitled to the information.

"All he wants to know is what happened to that money. I think that's a pretty simple request," Katz said. "I'm a little dismayed that he wasn't given something as basic as [City Council] resolutions."

In response to questions from the judge, Assistant City Attorney Ilene Lampitt replied: "The $229,035 for the MLK House was actually reprogrammed for the Fire Department." She said the Parks Department, in conjunction with Camden County, "decided to go a different way." She did not elaborate.

"That's amazing to me," Katz replied.

Doherty had a similar reaction.

"I can't fathom that it came down the way it did," he said.

Lampitt declined to comment Tuesday, citing the pending litigation. "I really can't speak to it now," she said.

Vince Basara, a spokesman for Mayor Frank Moran, also declined to comment Tuesday.

Katz set a May 18 deadline for the city to turn over "every single bit of information promulgated by any entity within the City of Camden dealing with the $229,000 MLK funds" and how after approval by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to spend it on the restoration project, it was diverted to the Fire Department.

The judge said she could not determine whether the action was proper without seeing the underlying paperwork. It was unclear whether the Fire Department had received the funds.

"I'm assuming there's got to be a resolution. There's got to be an ordinance. There's got to be paperwork. There's got to be some kind of email chain," the judge said. "I want all of that information provided."

Camden can reallocate the funds without HUD approval, but such action may require a public hearing, said agency spokeswoman Olga Alvarez. The city received $2.1 million in community block grants in 2017 and $2.3 million in 2018, she said.

"It's pretty common," Alvarez said.

A June 5 hearing was scheduled on additional requests filed by Duff.

Duff said he was surprised to learn that the funds were no longer designated for the King house, which he has been fighting for years to save.

"It's like the twilight zone," Duff said.

In 2016, the city reached an agreement allowing the nonprofit Cooper's Ferry Partnership to take over the house. Cooper's Ferry was to become the custodian of the property, owned by Jeannette Hunt.

Last year, Cooper's Ferry applied to the city for a $160,000 grant to preserve and rehabilitate the house. Additional funding would come from a foundation and $45,000 from in-kind donations, the application said. It called for design work to begin in August 2017 and the project to be completed by July 2018.

Duff asked the city for documents to show how the grant was increased to $229,000 before it was diverted to the Fire Department. He also requested minutes from the meeting at which the grant was approved.

Kris Kolluri, president and chief executive officer of Cooper's Ferry, which is overseeing redevelopment in Camden, said the agency has not received any of the funds in question from the city for the project.

"Cooper's Ferry does not have an involvement in the project, because there never was a grant agreement between the city and Cooper's Ferry," Kolluri said.

The Walnut Street house where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived while a student at Crozer Theology Seminary.
AVI STEINHARDT
The Walnut Street house where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived while a student at Crozer Theology Seminary.

King stayed in Camden when he was a student at the now-closed Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, local historians say. While living there, King was refused service at a Maple Shade bar along with a fellow seminary student, an incident that some believe helped spark his long crusade for civil rights.

Duff began campaigning to save the house and raised an alarm after the building's owner received a demolition notice from the city. U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.), who was a King lieutenant, stopped by in 2016 to lend his support.

An application seeking a historical designation for the house has been pending for several years with the state Office of Historic Preservation.  A controversial study released this year by Stockton University researchers cast doubts about the historical significance of the house and the impact that any time that King spent in Camden had on his development in later life.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference in Philadelphia in 1961.
FILE
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference in Philadelphia in 1961.

A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection said a decision had not been made on whether to place the house on the historical register. The house could be eligible for state and federal preservation funds with such a designation.

Camden 's Historical Commission declared the house a historical site in 2016. Francis and local historians believe King frequently studied for classes and mulled issues that helped mold him as a civil rights leader during his stays in Camden. The state Legislature passed resolutions that same year calling for the preservation of the house.

Duff said he still hopes to turn the house and an adjacent vacant lot into a site commemorating King 's time in Camden.