Saturday, February 7, 2009

How can we get the Local Finance Board to enforce the ethics law?

The vast majority of municipalities in New Jersey do not have their own ethics boards. So, any citizen complaints alleging that local officials in these municipalities violate the Local Government Ethics Law are handled at the state level--by the Local Finance Board (LFB).

The Legislature passed the Local Government Ethics Law because “[t]he vitality and stability of representative democracy depend upon the public's confidence in the integrity of its elected and appointed representatives.” N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.2(b). One of the law’s provisions require local officials to publicly reveal their income sources so that citizens can detect possible conflicts of interest. The reporting is done on Financial Disclosure Statements which every local government officer must file before April 30th of each year. I've placed examples of the Statements on-line here.

Over the past several years, I have filed several complaints with the LFB after discovering through OPRA requests that local officials either have not filed their Statements at all or that they have omitted relevant and important information from their Statements.

After conducting exceedingly long "investigations," the LFB has dismissed each and every one of my complaints. The way it works is that during its "investigations," which typically take about a year to complete, the LFB invites the officials I complain about to file their delinquent Financial Disclosure Statements. After the delinquent Statements are filed--sometimes years after they were originally due--the LFB notifies me that my complaint has been "dismissed [because] it no longer has a reasonable factual basis." For an example of this, see the LFB's June 4, 2004 response to my August 5, 2003 complaint that Haddon Heights (Camden County) Municipal Prosecutor Stuart Alterman failed to file timely Financial Disclosure Statements. That letter is on-line here.

It is clear, at least to me, that the LFB's procedure, which a) gives a non-filing official a heads-up when a citizen complains, and b) dismisses the citizen's complaint after the delinquent Statement is filed, is an illusory "enforcement" mechanism that actually invites continued noncompliance with the filing requirements. In sum, why should a local official file a timely Financial Disclosure Statement when a) the filing will only be "required" in the unlikely event that a citizen files a formal complaint, and b) there is no penalty for the original delinquency?

After having encountered several similar dismissals, I wrote an opinion piece for The Observer, a weekly newspaper that circulates in Union County. The piece, which ran on August 7, 2006, is highly critical of the LFB and is available for download here.

On August 19, 2006, I sent a copy of the Observer piece to every member of the Local Finance Board and the LFB's Executive Director asking that they please consider enforcing the Local Government Ethics Law with more vigor. I received no acknowledgment or response to my letter, the mail-merge template of which is on-line here.

Unfortunately, nothing has changed and the LFB is still adhering to its existing "dismissal-after-the-tardy-filing" policy. On March 18, 2008, I filed a complaint against four members of the Penns Grove (Salem County) Borough Council who did not file their Financial Disclosure Statements that were due April 30, 2007. In other word, the four officials against whom I complained were nearly a year late in filing their required forms. In its February 2, 2009 response--nearly eleven months after its receipt of my complaint--the LFB informed me that a) three of the four members I had complained against had made their past-due filings after my complaint was filed causing my complaint against them to be "dismissed" on November 12, 2008, and b) one member--Councilwoman Mincey--had not yet filed her Statement and that as such, my complaint against her "is still pending." The LFB's February 2, 2009 letter is on-line here. I am curious to learn what, if anything, the LFB will do to Councilwoman Mincey if she decides to never file her required Financial Disclosure Statement.

At this point, I really don't know what else to do except to continue to announce that the Local Finance Board simply is not an effective enforcer of the Local Government Ethics Law. I have informed my state legislators of the problem and hopefully one of them is willing to intercede.

If anyone has any suggestions as to how to get traction on this issue, please let me know.

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey

2 comments:

  1. This is probably obvious and self-evident, but the traction you need will come when you (or a local resident) shows that there was a conflict of interest between themselves and a situation that occurred during the year in which there financial disclosure should have been filed - that linkage is critical if you are to make a real change in enforcement and penalties. If you could show that conflict, I am sure the traction would come and due attention would be drawn to the issue. So, I would probe a bit deeper and see if any residents of that community is aware of any conflicts for that filing year which would explain their reason for not filing. I am doubtful you can get anywhere with the LFB if it is just laziness on the part of the delinquent filers.

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  2. I think that the publicity arising out of an issue in Bergenfield ( http://www.lpcnj.org/OGTF/BergenfieldFDS.pdf ) shows something akin to the linkage that you're talking about. I don't think that it has changed anything, however.

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