Saturday, June 29, 2013

State fines Burlington County municipal lawyer $500 for financial disclosure violation.

By letter of June 25, 2013, the Local Finance Board levied a $500 fine against a municipal attorney who omitted sources of income from his financial disclosure filings.  Nicholas J. Costa, who serves as Municipal Attorney for Wrightstown Borough as well as Municipal Prosecutor for several other area towns, must either pay the $500 fine within ten days or appeal the decision within thirty days.

According to the "Notice of Violation" authored by Thomas H. Neff, Chair of the Local Finance Board, Costa earned more than $2,000 from each Florence and Mount Laurel Townships during 2010 but failed to disclose those income sources on his Financial Disclosure Statement.  Filing of Financial Disclosure Statements is required by the New Jersey Local Government Ethics Law.

The Board's investigation was prompted by a March 19, 2012 ethics complaint filed John Paff, Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project.  The Projects seeks to make government agencies and officials more transparent and accountable to the public.

The Board's Notice of Violation and the Party's complaint are on-line here.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Court: Egg Harbor must disclose police report regarding "asleep at the wheel" cop.

In a twenty-three page opinion issued on June 25, 2013, Atlantic County Superior Court Assignment Judge Julio L. Mendez ruled that the public is allowed to see a report written by Egg Harbor Township Police Sergeant Michael Hughes soon after Northfield Police found an off-duty Egg Harbor Township officer named Jeffrey Lancaster asleep behind the wheel of his personal vehicle during the early morning hours of February 27, 2011.  Judge Mendez's opinion and order are on-line here and background on the lawsuit is on-line here.

Judge Mendez found that since there was no internal affairs investigation pending at the time Hughes wrote his report, it was not subject to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) exception that restricts access to records that "pertain to an investigation in progress."  Judge Mendez, noting that police officers serve "in a position of trust" found that disclosure of the report "will only fortify the trust and credibility afforded to the Egg Harbor Township police department by its citizenry." The suit was filed by Walter M. Luers, Esq. of Clinton on behalf of John Paff, the plaintiff. 

Hughes' report, which was ultimately released on July 15, 2014, is on-line here.

The court did allow certain "legitimately confidential information" to be redacted from Hughes' report and denied access to Lancaster's preliminary and final disciplinary records that arose from the incident.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Court dismisses lawsuit by arrestee who lied about conviction status on OPRA form.

Today, June 21, 2013, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court affirmed a lower court's dismissal of Michael Taffaro's false arrest lawsuit against the Borough of Ridgefield and Borough Mayor Anthony A. Suarez.  The court's opinion is on-line here.

According to the opinion, Taffaro, who claimed to have been put on Suarez's persona non grata list after having publicly criticized him during his mayoral campaign, had been convicted of fourth degree contempt,had been convicted of fourth degree contempt, a conviction that was later reversed by the New Jersey Supreme Court.  But, before the Supreme Court's reversal of the conviction, Taffaro had submitted an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request form to the Borough Clerk that contained the standard language regarding the requestor's conviction status.  On the form, Taffaro certified that he had not been convicted, even though the Supreme Court had yet to reverse his conviction.

According to Taffaro, Ridgefield police filed a complaint against him on August 6, 2007 for making a false written statement, which resulted in his August 16, 2007 arrest, a strip search and detention at the Bergen County Jail. 

In response to Taffaro's civil suit, lower courts found that since the police had probable cause to arrest him, his false arrest claim must be dismissed.  Today's Appellate Division ruling affirmed that dismissal.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

OPRA hearing tomorrow in Belvidere

On Friday, June 14, 2013 at 9:30 a.m., Warren County Superior Court Judge Amy O'Connor will hear argument in the case of Paff v. Warren County Prosecutor, Docket No. WRN-L-34-13.  My complaint, certification and brief in this case, filed by the Law Office of Walter M. Luers, are on-line here

At issue is an investigation of an incident, shortly after Hurricane Sandy, in which an employee of the Warren County Jail used a county-owned generator for his or her own personal use.  The County Prosecutor, who declined to seek criminal charges against the employee, provided me with some investigative documents from which the employee's name was redacted.  I believe that the public is entitled to know the employee's identity.

The public is invited to attend and observe tomorrow's hearing.  It will be held at the Courthouse, 413 2nd Street, Belvidere.

State Firemen's Association subject to OPRA

In a decision handed down today, June 13, 2013, a three-judge panel of the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, ruled that the New Jersey State Firemen's Association (NJSFA) "is a public agency under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA)."

I am the plaintiff in the case.  I have served since 1992 as a volunteer firefighter and am a life member of the NJSFA.  I submitted an OPRA request to the NJSFA in September 2011 which was denied because the NJSFA asserted that it was not subject to OPRA.  With Richard Gutman of Montclair as my attorney, I filed suit challenging the denial and my suit was dismissed on February 17, 2012 by Union County Superior Court Judge Regina Caufield.  I appealed and the Appellate Division, in a published decision, reversed the dismissal and remanded for further proceedings.  Caufield's decision is on-line here and the Appellate Division's is on-line here.

The Appellate Division found that the NJSFA is an "independent State . . . instrumentality" within OPRA's definition of "public agency."  N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1.  Taking guidance from three previous Supreme Court decisions, the Appellate Division found that the NJSFA's "formation, structure, and function render it public agency under OPRA."  The court found that the NJSFA, which received nearly $25 million in taxes on fire insurance premiums received by non-domestic insurance companies in 2010, "owes its existence to state law, which authorized its creation, granted it powers, including powers over local associations, and barred the creation of a competing state association."  The court noted that a prior instance of a $600,000 embezzlement by an NJSFA treasurer "reinforces [the Court's] conclusion that subjecting the Association to OPRA would fulfill the legislative intent to inform citizens interested in combating misconduct and corruption."

Further background on the lawsuit is on my blog here.  The NJSFA's official OPRA request form is on-line here.