Friday, August 7, 2015

Local Finance Board adjudicates some ethics cases.


Although the Local Finance Board (LFB) processes citizen complaints alleging violations of the Local Government Ethics Law, it does not place its decisions on-line.  And, the LFB doesn't even notify the public when a decision is reached that disposes of an ethics case.  Since ethics complaints sometimes take years to go through the LFB's process, the public has no ready way to find out which cases have recently closed and thus become publicly disclosable.  I obtain this information the best I can by periodically comparing snapshots of the LFB's case rosters, which I obtain through OPRA requests, to see which cases have closed during the interval between the creation dates of both rosters.  I then submit additional OPRA requests for the case files on those recently closed cases to see who was involved and whether the accused public official was found to be in violation.

This, of course, is a very tedious process, but, given the LFB's apparent reluctance to be more transparent, it's the only way of getting this information out the public.

Following is a list of cases.

Violations:


LFB found that Vanaman violated the Local Government Ethics Law when he simultaneously served as Public Safety Director as an elected member of the City Commission and as secretary to the Millville Volunteer Fire Department, which was a "substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest."  $100 fine was imposed.  It is presently unknown if Vanaman appealed the February 13, 2015 determination.

The complainant was Robert McQuade.


LFB found that Dilts used her official position to secure an unwarranted privilege or advantage for herself or others when she used municipal resources to campaign for candidates prior to the November 2010 School Board elections and November 2012 Township Council elections. $100 fine was imposed.  It is presently unknown if Dilts appealed the March 13, 2015 determination.

The complainant was Martin Swim.


LFB found that Mayor Gerbounka participated in City Council caucus meetings with Council members where a proposed resolution that would authorize a Jones Act Assignment Sale of municipally held tax title liens, including a tax sale list of properties, was discussed.  During the discussions, the issue of whether or not a bid offered by Cherokee Equities on a property owned by Councilman John Sheehy and his brother Stephen Sheehy, should be rejected was also discussed.  Mayor Gerbounka executed the resolution which accepted all bids with the exception of rejecting the bid made by Cherokee Equities on the Sheehy property.  The LFB imposed a $100 fine on Gerbounka.

LFB found that Brown, Sheehy, Armstead, Cosby-Hurling, Kolibas, Koziol, Kuczynski, Medina, Moore, Sadowski, Yamakaitis, Gerbounka, voted to approve a resolution which rejected a bid offered by Cherokee Equities on a property at 200 East St. Georges Avenue which is owned by fellow Councilman John Sheehy and his brother Stephen Sheehy. Armstead, Cosby-Hurling, Kolibas, Koziol, Kuczynski, Medina, Moore, Sadowski, Yamakaitis were each fined $100, but the fine was waived. Brown and Sheehy were fined $100 and $500, respectively, and the fine was not waived.  It is presently unknown whether any of the respondents appealed the February 23, 2015 determination.

The complainant was Ann Rubin of the Union County Prosecutor's Office.


LFB found that Gloria Oh, a member of the Borough Council, and Jason Oh, a member of the Borough's Sign/Facade Committee, failed to disclose certain financial interests OL Home Builders, LLC and Gloria Oh Law Group, LLC, and "potentially failed" to disclose interests in Fort Lee Title Agency, LLC and Good Restaurant, Inc. in their Financial Disclosure Statements.  The were also both found to have failed to disclose Mr. Oh's income from American Accu Services, LLC.  A fine of $100 was imposed on each of them.  It is presently unknown whether any of the respondents appealed the March 13, 2015 determination.

The complainant was Lauren Eastwood.

Settlements:


The LFB entered into settlement establishing that Muller, who served as a member of the Land Use Board (and the Borough Council), was the co-listing agent to a 32.5 acre tract of land adjacent to his residence.  On September 14, 2010, Mr. Muller participated in the public comment portion of the Borough Council meeting advocating the re-zoning of the property into smaller, developable parcels of land.  As a council member, Muller on January 24, 2012 moved and voted in favor of a resolution approving a sewer connection to the same 32.5 acre tract of land. The LFB also found that Muller voted against a resolution that would have allowed the Borough to acquire property that was within 200 feet of a Willow Avenue property Muller owned.  Under the settlement, the total fine imposed against Muller was $600.  Muller's attorney in the matter was Jeffrey S. Chiesa.

The complainant was  John L. Sweeney.

Dismissals:


This case goes back to 2007, but "an internal audit of local Government Ethics Law complaints revealed that the Board had not concluded its investigation of Complaint C07-031, filed under a previous administration" therefore causing the complaint to be resolved in 2015.  Piner, the Parking Authority's executive director, was accused of  "hir[ig] business entities in which [she or her] husband had an interest to provide services to the Parking Authority and then submitted invoices for payment for the services rendered."

Yet, "in light of the time that has passed between the filing of the complaint and the present status of the complaint, as well as the current policies and practices of the Toms River Parking Authority which would prohibit such a recurrence of the prohibited activity. the Board has elected to dismiss this complaint."


Complaint alleged that Schaub "has in his employ, Alice Schaub (wife) as his secretary for several years."  It was further alleged that "Mr. Schaub . . . wrote the Employee Handbook. This handbook allows him to accumulate 365 days of unused sick/vacation days and may receive a lump sum payment upon termination. The handbook also requires the fire district to provide 98.5% of the retiree's and spouse post-retirement medical insurance premium payments and also 98.5% of Medical reimbursements."

The complaint was put on hold because of a simultaneous investigation being conducted by the Office of State Comptroller ("OSC"). In April 2014, after the OSC issued its report, Mr. Schaub passed away.  This resulted in a dismissal of the ethics complaint.

The complainant was Dan Pagano.


Complaint alleged that Kruk left blank fields on his Financial Disclosure Statements. Complaint dismissed because "the allegations do not rise to the level of an ethics violation."

The complainant was Sidney Kanter.


Complaint alleged that Dow, who serves on the Township Council,and Belton, who serves both on the Township Council and as President of the Library Board of Trustees, failed to file Financial Disclosure Statements.  Complaint also alleges that Belton "spoke at a Council meeting and voiced [his] support for the library."  The LFB dismissed both complaints after finding that "Council members can express their support for a township library" and because "a significant amount of time has passed and the Board has decided to actively pursue non-compliance of FDS filings under the newly created electronic filing system on a state-wide basis."

The complainant was "Anonymous"


Complaint alleged that Keffner allowed a church, at which his wife was an employee and a parishioner, to hire auxiliary police for the Festival instead of duly sworn police officers for security at its 2011 Parish Festival.  The LFB noted that "the PBA filed a grievance against the Township relating to the contractual violation arising from the alleged employment of the auxiliary police as security for the Festival. Board Staff contacted the Complainant on multiple occasions in an attempt to determine the outcome of the grievance, along with other supporting documentation. No response was received."  Since Complainant has been unresponsive to Board Staff's written requests for information and documentation necessary to verify the allegations and make an appropriate determination in this matter," the LFB dismissed the complaint.

The complainant was Erik Knudsen


Complaint alleged that Love distributed a letter around September 22, 2011 in which statements were made concerning the Mayor such as "the MUA cannot stop the Mayor from disseminating inaccurate information and causing unnecessary fear in her re-election campaign." It was also alleged that your actions violated the State Ethics Commission's guidelines and violated MUA personnel policies.

After a preliminary investigation of the facts and circumstances relevant to this complaint, the LFB determined to dismiss the because the allegations had no reasonable factual basis. The LFB also noted that itdoes not have jurisdiction over possible violations of State Ethics Commission's guidelines and local personnel policies.

The complainant was Bettina Bieri.


Complaint alleged that Merlino attended a meeting at the Township Municipal Building with a Township construction official and a local land developer in her capacity as the real estate agent for the developer in August 2012.  The LFB dismissed the complaint after learning from Merlino that she is the sole owner and licensed broker of Home & Suite Realty in Atco who in August 2012 extended a courtesy to another locally based real estate salesperson by traveling to a vacant parcel of land in the Louden section of Waterford Township to speak with a gentleman from Gloucester County who professed to have an interest in developing the property for residential construction.

Merlino said that she had no personal, professional, or business relationship whatsoever with the gentleman. Upon encountering the gentleman at the property, she said that she learned that he had previously been in contact with an employee of Waterford Township and that the gentleman told her he had made an arrangement to review local land use ordinances at the Township Municipal Building. He informed Merlino that he did not know where the municipal building was located and she offered to lead him over to the municipal building, where she introduced him to Edward Toussaint, the Township Zoning Official.  Merlino said that she did not attend the meeting or participate in discussions.

The complainants were William Richardson and William Hurley.


Complaint alleged that Polistina voted to approve an amendment to the Northfield Land Use Ordinance (Ordinance 9-2012) involving property owned by his employer, Nick Droboniku.  Similarly, Carew was accused of voting for the same ordinance when Droboniku previously served as his campaign manager/treasurer. The LFB dismissed the complaint upon determining that the change to the zoning of Mr. Droboniku's property did not impact him to any greater extent than the zoning changes to the balance of the properties throughout the municipality.

The complainants were Jimmy Martinez, Melvin Nathanson, Mark Howell, Dan Mahec and Pete DaPrato.


Complaint alleged that DiDomenico voted on a salary ordinance, Ordinance 12-17, which affected his wife, the Administrative Clerk for the Department of Finance/Taxation/Water.

The LFB dismissed the complaint after finding that DiDomenico's wife's title was covered under a bargaining unit and the salaries for those titles had already been established by a valid contract. The contract ,between the Borough of Woodland Park and International Brother of Electrical Workers was passed by the Borough on May 19, 2010 in Resolution R10-164 and was valid from January 1, 2010 through December 31, 2016. The LFB noted that DiDomenico had abstained from the vote.

The complainant was Keith Kazmark.


Complaint alleged that Horton ordered Borough Zoning Officer James Fania to remove lawn signs from properties along Highland Avenue that displayed messages opposed to a local hospital and used Borough Funds to purchase gift cards for distribution to Borough employees from a shop operated by the Mayor's wife.

Borough Administrator Margaret Gould and Zoning Officer James Fania both submitted notarized affidavits claiming that Horton did not direct them to remove the signs on Highland Avenue.  As to the gift cards, Horton explained that he and his wife personally paid for 13 $20 gift certificates from Second Chance--the gift/thrift shop affiliated with Matheny Medical and Educational Center--for a total of $260.  Horton's law firm used to serve as Matheny's bond counsel and Horton's wife served as a member of the Matheny's Board of Trustees and as General Manager for Second Chance. Horton submitted copies of the cancelled check used to pay for the gift certificates and advised that the Borough Council declined his request reimburse the $260.

The complainant was Ruth Williams.


Complaint alleged that all the respondents failed to disqualify the Mercer County Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) as a bidder to operate the township owned Bromley Neighborhood Service Center although Martin Flynn was both a member of the CYO Board of Directors and the Township Director of Health, Recreation, Seniors, & Veterans Services.  The LFB dismissed the complaint because here is no basis for the CYO to be disqualified from the consideration process simply because one Township Employee is a member of the Board of Directors.

The complainant was Dan Keelan.


Complaint alleged that Sooy did not recuse himself from a closed session meeting of the governing body held to discuss a potential settlement with an employee, Sherry Trout, although he was the subject of a separate grievance filed by her. He was also accused of "rely[ing] on other legal counsel in city matters."  The LFB ruled that "the simple filing of a grievance by one party did not rise to the level needed to create a prohibitive involvement that would have necessitated" Sooy's recusal and that City Commissioners "are free to disagree with the legal advice of the City Solicitor . . . at [their] own peril."

The complainant was Joseph M. Chiarello.


Complaint alleged that Boccino, as Principal Planner, Land Acquisition for the Somerset County Parks Commission and Freeholder Board, issued an inaccurate press release regarding the acquisition of Open Space by the Board of Freeholders which stated that Franklin Township has agreed to contribute monies to the acquisition and that the Board had entered into a contract for the property. The complaint alleged that Boccino issued this press release to help a Freeholder and a candidate for Freeholder in their upcoming elections.

The LFB dismissed the allegations after finding that Somerset County and Franklin Township had a verbal understanding that Franklin Township would contribute monies to the acquisition and contracts were being exchanged and signed at the time of the press release. In addition, the LFB determined that the connection between a county employee issuing a press release and securing an unwarranted privilege for Freeholder candidates was tenuous.

The complainant was Margaret Schaffer.


Complaint alleged that Boccino advised the Sewerage Authority that he was lawfully permitted to have a three year term when state law mandates a one year term.  The LFB dismissed the complaint for lack of jurisdiction because the complaint requires a legal interpretation of the Local Public Contracts Law "and not necessarily the LGEL's prohibition against using or attempting to use one's official position to unwarranted privileges or advantages for oneself or others."

The complainant was John Paff.


Complaint alleged that Savini failed to report income derived from a Marco Island, Florida property he owned on his 2013 Financial Disclosure Statement.  The LFB dismissed the complaint because there is no definitive evidence that Savini either owned or derived an income from the property in Florida.

The complainant was "Anonymous."


Complaint alleged that Kenny falsified an automobile accident report by concluding that the complainant admitted fault in the accident. The other party in the accident was a retired Brick Township employee.  It was alleged that the Township Police Department, after complainant filed an Internal Affairs complaint, amended the accident report.  The complainant alleged that Kenny tried to secure an unwarranted privilege to the other driver in the accident.

The LFB determined that "disputes involving motor vehicle accidents, traffic violations, and police reports generally fall within the purview of the municipal and state courts which deprived the LFB of jurisdiction to adjudicate such a matter. Therefore the LFB dismissed the complaint, finding that there is no reasonable factual basis upon which to find a violation of the Local Government Ethics Law and that there was no indication that Kenny had a prior relationship with either party in the accident which might give rise to a prohibitive involvement.

The complainant was Joseph A. Leopardi.

Other Dispositions:


Complaint alleged that Aschenbach compromised the "fair-and-open"  public contracting process by trying to get Bob Renaud appointed as Township Attorney."  The LFB dismissed the case finding that it did not have jurisdiction over this matter because it involves alleged violations of the Local Public Contracts Law d/or Pay-to-Play Law."

The complainant was Mark Smith


Complaint made unknown allegations against the Mayor, but those allegations are probably related to the issues discussed in "Vineland council president addresses conflict with mayor, recent controversies," South Jersey Times, Don E. Woods, February 17, 2014. The LFB, noting that its rules prevented it from considering matters that under litigation, dismissed the complaint without prejudice, meaning that it can be brought anew when the litigation is resolved.

The complainant was Anthony Fanucci.

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