Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Local Finance Board will start posting ethics minutes on-line but will continue to obscure case docket numbers in those minutes.

Among the first orders of business at the Local Finance Board's (LFB) meetings is the consideration of complaints filed against local government officials for alleged violations of the Local Government Ethics Law (LGEL).  While the Board keeps minutes of the portions of its meetings where LGEL complaints are discussed, it has not posted them on the Board's website. Rather, the Board posts transcripts of the other parts of its meetings on-line and requires the public to submit Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests for the portions of the minutes that record the LGEL complaint discussions. 

In a February 26, 2018 letter, however, LFB Chairman Timothy J. Cunningham promised that the Board will soon begin posting the minutes of the ethics portions on the Board's website. 

Cunningham's letter was in response to my December 22, 2017 correspondence that requested on-line posting of the ethics minutes and for the Board to discontinue obscuring case docket numbers in those minutes.  On the latter point, the Board's practice is to not refer to an ethics case by its case number but by another number that prevents the public from knowing which case is being discussed.

For example, the LFB discussed at its September 13, 2017 meeting an ethics case brought against former Ridgewood Mayor Paul Aronsohn and Manager Roberta Sonenfeld, LFB Complaint No. 16-009.  But, the minutes of that meeting did not refer to "LFB Complaint No. 16-009" but to another number (in this case, III.A.7).  I argued that the use of the separate number made it impossible for the public to know which case was being discussed.

In his response, Cunningham defended the minutes' use of a different numbering system as being necessary to keep the Board from "violating its confidentiality obligations." The LFB has historically assigned paramount importance to the confidentiality interests of accused local officials and very little importance to the public's right to know which officials are being investigated.  In its rejection of New Jersey Foundation for Open Government's 2015 request for earlier disclosure of the identity of public officials under LGEL investigations, the Board wrote that "[d]isclosure of unverified information . . . may impact a [government official’s] standing in the community or employment with a public agency."  Thus, ethics matters are kept completely confidential until a determination is made and ethics investigations often take years to complete.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Five members of Borough Council say that they lack an annual source of income in excess of $2,000.

As required by the Local Government Ethics Law, Woodlynne Borough (Camden County) Councilwoman Sharon Earley and her husband, Planning Board Member Robert Earley, both filed Financial Disclosure Statements (FDSs) in 2017.  These filings are intended to disclose basic information regarding public officials' and their family members' sources of income, business interests and real estate holdings.  Their purpose is to inform the public of the sources of the public officials' income so that the public can detect and report conflicts of interest (e.g. a zoning board member voting on an variance application filed by his or her spouse's employer).

But, both Earleys claimed on their FDS forms to have had no sources of income in 2016, earned or unearned, that were in excess of $2,000.  Both also claimed not to have had interests in any business organizations.  The only thing the Earleys disclosed on their forms was ownership of their Cedar Avenue home.  While, I suppose that it's possible for a married couple who are homeowners in New Jersey to not have a source of income greater than $2,000, it seems very unlikely given that the property taxes on the home are more than $2,000.

After reviewing the Earleys' FDS forms, I decided to dig a bit deeper.  I found that, including the Earleys, five Woodlynne Borough Council members who served in 2017 and four 2017 Planning Board members likewise claimed that their households lacked a $2,000 or greater source of income during 2016.

It seems to me that at least some of these officials really do have sources of income greater than $2,000 but would prefer not to report them.  Failure to report, however, is against the law.  Below is the text of complaint I filed yesterday against all nine officials with the Local Finance Board--the state agency that enforces the ethics law.  The Board will conduct an investigation (which generally takes 2 to 3 years) and has the power to levy fines of between $100 and $500 if it finds that the ethics law has been broken.  The complaint names all nine officials and provides links to each official's 2017 FDS filing.
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February 12, 2018

Patricia Parkin McNamara
Local Finance Board
101 S Broad St – PO Box 803
Trenton, NJ 08625-0803
(via e-mail only to Patricia.McNamara@dca.state.nj.us)

Dear Ms. McNamara:

We intend this e-mail to be our complaint against the following nine (9) Local Government Officers (LGOs) serving Woodlynne Borough (Camden County) who all held office in 2017 (Note that each name contains a live link to that LGO's 2017 Financial Disclosure Statement (FDS)):

Joseph Chukwueke, Council Member 
Sharon Earley, Council Member 
Alphonso Thomas, Council Member 
Gwendolyn Torres, Council Member 
William Valle, Council Member 
Amy Earley, Planning Board Member 
Robert Earley, Planning Board Member 
Noble Kelly, Planning Board Member 
Devy D. Robinson, Planning Board Member 

1. State the point of the Local Government Ethics Law (LGEL) alleged to be violated. 

N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.6 which requires each LGO to file an annual Financial Disclosure Statement (FDS).

2. State the name(s) and title(s) of the parties involved in the action and against whom the complaint is filed. 

Complainants are John Paff and the New Jersey Libertarian Party and Respondents are Joseph Chukwueke, Sharon Earley, Alphonso Thomas, Gwendolyn Torres, William Valle, Amy Earley, Robert Earley, Noble Kelly and Devy D. Robinson.

3. Set forth in detail the pertinent facts surrounding the alleged violative action. 

Each Respondent is required to disclose on his or her FDS "each source of income, earned or unearned, which [he or she] received in excess of $2,000."  Knowing the source of officials' income is important because it helps the public detect conflicts of interest that might otherwise go unnoticed.  For example, if an applicant before the Planning Board employs and pays a Planning Board member's spouse more than $2,000 per year, a member of the public so informed could call attention to a conflict of interest if that Planning Board member attempted to vote on the application.  In each of these nine (9) cases, however, the LGO stated that neither the LGO nor any members of the LGO's immediate family had any sources of income in 2016 from which more than $2,000 was received.  While it is perhaps possible for an individual or family to live in New Jersey and have no single source of income of greater than $2,000, it is highly unlikely that five of the seven members of the Mayor and Council and four members of the Planning Board all have no sources of income from which more than $2,000 is derived.  Further, Chukwueke and his wife, Sharon and Robert Earley, Valle and his wife, and Robinson and her husband all report ownership of real estate.  It is general knowledge that real estate taxes in New Jersey would require a source of income in excess of $2,000 to pay.  Complainants allege that each of these nine LGOs and their immediate family members have sources of income in excess of $2,000 but have chosen not to disclose those sources. 

4. Indicate whether the complaint concerns the complainant in any way and what, if any, relationship the complainant has to the subject of the complaint. 

Complainants have no interest in or relationship to this complaint greater than any other citizen or organization who wishes for all government officers and employees to comply fully with the Local Government Ethics Law. 

5. Indicate any other action previously taken in an attempt to resolve the issue and indicate whether the issue is the subject of pending litigation elsewhere. 

No other action has been taken previously in an attempt to resolve this issue and, as far as we know, this issue is not the subject of any pending litigation. 

Thank you for your attention to this matter. I ask that you please acknowledge your receipt of this complaint within 30 days.

Sincerely,

/s/ John Paff, Chairman
New Jersey Libertarian Party's
Open Government Advocacy Project
Voice: 732-873-1251
e-mail: paff@pobox.com