Monday, December 11, 2017

Township Committeeman in Salem seeks review of $500 ethics fine.

According to records recently received by way of an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, a sitting member of the Lower Alloways Creek Township (Salem County) Committee is contesting a $500 fine levied against him by state ethics authorities on February 13, 2017.

According to two separate Notices of Violation issued by the Local Finance Board, the main New Jersey agency that investigates ethics violations, Township Committeeman Richard Venable violated the Local Government Ethics Law by acting on Township police business while his son was a sergeant in the Township's police department.

According to the first violation notice, Venable voted on a 2013 proposed ordinance that sought to clarify the roles of the Lower Alloways Creek Public Safety Director.  The second notice alleged that Venable participated in a 2014 Township Committee executive session at which the police union's collective bargaining agreement was discussed.  The Board fined Venable $250 for each violation claiming that he acted in his official capacity in a matter in which an immediate family member had an interest and which "might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment."

Both Notices of Violation advised Venable of his right to request an administrative hearing within 30 days.  Venable exercised that right and claimed that Township Solicitor George Rosenberger advised him that he could participate in both matters.

According to an Excel spreadsheet recently disclosed by the Office of Administrative Law, Venable's ethics hearing or another proceeding related to it was scheduled to be heard by Administrative Law Judge Dorothy Incarvito-Garrabrant in Atlantic City at 10 a.m. on November 29, 2017.  No information is presently available regarding the results of that hearing.

According to a roster of ethics matters recently released by the Local Finance Board, the ethics complaint against Venable was filed by Robert F. Breslin.  According to a November 13, 2017 news article, Breslin lost to Venable in the 2017 general election by 34 votes.

Also, according to the Township's website, Richard W. Venable, Jr., who is presumably Committeeman Venable's son, is the Township's Acting Chief.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Videos show Bridgeton police officer pepper spraying handcuffed man, fellow officer.

In response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, the City of Bridgeton (Cumberland County) recently disclosed four body worn camera videos that capture an interaction between three City police officers and two men in a vehicle that had run out fuel during the early morning hours of June 18, 2017.  Shortly before pepper spraying one man in the face, one of the officers is recorded as saying "Do you want to feel pain, sir?" After spraying him for the second time, the officer screamed "There, how do you like it now? Now, get in the goddamned car!" and "Pull your legs in. Now! I'm going to give it to you again!"

The event occurred at about 5 a.m. at the Riggins service station on West Broad Street, Bridgeton which is across the street from the Cumberland County Courthouse.  Two men were in a 1996 Buick that had run out of fuel.  The men, who appeared to be intoxicated, told officers that they were waiting for the Riggins station to open so that they could purchase fuel.  During an investigation, police discovered an empty whiskey bottle on the floor of the Buick.

The police officers who responded were Ronald F. Broomall, John R. Grier and Donald J. Young.  Grier was the officer who deployed the pepper spray.  When he first deployed the spray, Grier sprayed Broomall as well as the man who was the spray's intended target.

According to the arrest report, the man who was pepper sprayed was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated and resisting arrest. The complaint-summons for the resisting charge claimed that the man was "resisting arrest by refusing to enter into the patrol vehicle after being arrested for DWI."  Grier's Affidavit of Probable Cause claimed that the man "was advised to be seated inside the patrol vehicle numerous times, at which time he refused."  Grier also filed a Use of Force Report regarding the incident.

For those who wish to view short clips of just the pepper spraying incident, below are links to two videos of the event taken by Grier's and Broomall's body worn cameras.

Incident from Grier's perspective 
Incident from Broomall's perspective 

For those who want additional context, I have placed links below to four longer videos, two of which were the source of the short videos linked above.  The longer videos show the interaction between the officers and the men before and after the pepper spraying incident including the insults, rants and profanities that were spoken by the man who was ultimately pepper sprayed and arrested.  The last video, taken from Broomall's body worn camera, shows Broomall aiding the arrestee by pouring water on his head to help wash away the spray residue.

Video 1: Taken from Officer Young's body worn camera.  Young is the officer who gave the two men summonses for having an open container of alcohol.

Video 2: Taken from Officer Grier's body worn camera.  The video ends with Grier departing from the scene after his initial encounter with the men.

Video 3: Taken from Officer Grier's body worn camera.  The video depicts Grier's interaction with the man after he returns to the scene.

Video 4: Taken from Officer Broomall's body worn camera. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Former Ridgewood Mayor and Manager each fined $100 for Local Government Ethics Law violation.

On November 13, 2017, the New Jersey Local Finance Board (LFB) issued Notices of Violation to Ridgewood Village's (Bergen County) former Mayor and Manager for authorizing and appearing in a video that advocated only one side of a referendum question that was pending before Village voters.

The Notices of Violation, issued against former Mayor Paul Aronsohn and former Village Manager Roberta Sonenfeld, both arose out of a June 21, 2016 referendum question which sought $11,500,000 in bonds or notes to finance the cost of constructing a new parking deck.  Under New Jersey law, government officials may use public resources to educate--but not to persuade--voters on public issues.

The LFB found that the video was persuasive and not purely educational because it advocated only one side of the question and "urg[ed] citizens to vote 'yes.'"  Using public resources to persuade voters to vote "yes" on a referendum is unfair because the referendum's opponents do not have access to those resources and have to use private resources to distribute their message.

Aronsohn and Sonenfeld, by supporting and appearing in the video, were found to have "attempt[ed] to use [their] official position[s] to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for [themselves] or others in violation of N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.5(c)."

The ethics complaint against Arohnson and Sonenfeld was filed on June 13, 2016 by John Paff (the author of this article) and the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project.  The complaint and a link to the video are on-line here.

Both Aronsohn and Sonenfeld have the right to an administrative hearing as well as the right to appeal the violation to the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court.

Monday, November 20, 2017

ELEC files complaints against Cumberland Freeholder Director and County Democratic Committee Chairman

Joseph Derella, Director
Cumberland County Board
of Freeholders.
A search of the Election Law Enforcement Commission's (ELEC) complaint database reveals that on November 9, 2017, the Commission filed a twenty-two count complaint against the current Director of the Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders and a nineteen count complaint against the current chairman of the Cumberland County Democratic Organization.  Both complaints also name the pair's campaign treasurer as a respondent.

The main respondents in the two ELEC complaints are Joseph Derella, the current Director of the Cumberland County Freeholder Board and Doug Long, who previously served as Freeholder Board Deputy Director and who now serves as Chairman of the Cumberland County Democratic Committee.  Albert Marmero, who is managing partner at Grace Marmero & Associates, LLP, is also named in both complaints in his capacity as treasurer for both Long's and Derella's campaigns.  The law firm's website shows that Long was one of the founders of the firm's predecessor and now serves "Of Counsel" to the firm. 

Both complaints allege violations of the New Jersey Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Reporting Act and ELEC's regulations that were promulgated pursuant to that Act.  Both complaints allege reporting deficiencies during the 2012 primary and general elections.  While the allegations are too numerous to mention, Long is accused of filing a report that was due on April 23, 2012 on December 1, 2014 which is 952 days late.  Derella is accused of filing a required report 1,115 days late.

Derella is also accused of accepting a "currency contribution" of $1,000 and contributions from Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) even though acceptance of cash contributions in excess of $200 in aggregate from any one source and acceptance of contributions from LLCs are disallowed. 

Long, among other allegations, stands accused of making cash withdrawals in the 29-day period prior to the 2012 general election and also writing reimbursement checks totaling $5,600.29 to himself and a person named Marcus Wilson for services such as "lit drop street walk" and "phone bank, lit walk and canvassing."  ELEC contended that Long and Wilson "were not the ultimate recipients of" the $5,600.29 and suggested that some of the funds were used to pay "street money" in cash. 

These allegations are just that--allegations--and the ELEC has the burden of proving them.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Electrician is "voluntarily separated" from his employment with Evesham MUA and confidentially paid $26,760.80.

At its September 6, 2017 meeting, the Evesham Township (Burlington County) Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA) agreed to a "voluntary separation" agreement with one of its union electricians.  The agreement, however, is heavily redacted to suppress the facts underlying the separation decision.

The electrician is Joseph Scialabbo, a member of Teamster's Local 676, who has been employed by the MUA since June 29, 2015.  Both the MUA and Scialabbo agreed to "characterize his separation as a resignation" under which Scialabbo would receive $26,760.88.  One half of that amount will be reported on Scialabbo's W-2 and the other half will be reported on a 1099.  The MUA also agreed to give Scialabbo a neutral employment reference and Scialabbo and the Teamsters Local agreed to pay the MUA $5,000 plus legal costs if they disclose "the terms of this Agreement, or the fact that this agreement exists."

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Troopers seek to have their hostile work environment lawsuit move forward.

On November 26, 2012, two New Jersey State Troopers sued the Division of State Police claiming that they were subjected to a hostile work environment after one of the Troopers, a female, went undercover as an Atlantic City prostitute in May 2011.  On October 26, 2015, the lawsuit was administratively closed by United States District Judge Mary L. Cooper pending the outcome of disciplinary proceedings against the two Troopers that arose out them allegedly giving news media photographs of five Troopers celebrating a 2009 Camden drug bust by waiving a Puerto Rican flag.  On October 27, 2017, the attorney for both Troopers asked the court to reactivate the 2012 lawsuit because the disciplinary matters have concluded.

The 2012 lawsuit, filed by Troopers Kenneth Franco and Georgina Sirakides, was reported in a January 3, 2016 article titled "Troopers waved Puerto Rican flag in drug bust photos, got suspended" authored by S.P. Sullivan of NJ Advance Media.  The article, which includes a link to Franco's and Sirakides' lawsuit, reported that five Troopers who celebrated the drug bust by waiving the flag and giving thumbs up signals on camera each received a 20-day suspension.  The charges against Franco and Sirakides, detailed in a February 18, 2016 article on Random Notes on NJ Government, allege that they had leaked the flag photos to the media and that Sirakides committed domestic violence against her ex-husband Kenneth Sirakides who is also a Trooper.

The October 27, 2017 legal brief filed by Atlantic City attorney Anthony Morgano on Franco's and Sirakides' behalf reports that the disciplinary charges against the two Troopers were settled on June 28, 2017.  Both Troopers reportedly received 65-day suspensions, payment of nearly two years of back pay, reinstatement to the State Police and restoration "to the the same administrative sick leave [they were] on prior to" their May 14, 2015 suspensions.  According to the brief, Sirakides has since been declared eligible for disability retirement.  Morgano wrote that the two Troopers were "suspended . . . without pay based upon fabricated, minor disciplinary charges [while] similarly situated NJSP troopers received only minor discipline based on similar alleged conduct."

The court is scheduled to hear and determine the matter on November 20, 2017.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Commercial settles lawsuit with former Mayor.

On May 19, 2017 this blog reported on a lawsuit Commercial Township (Cumberland County) filed against its former Mayor claiming that he intentionally breached a Memorandum of Understanding (MOA) that the Mayor signed in March 2016 shortly after abruptly resigning from office.  On September 7, 2017, the Township and the former Mayor entered into a settlement that resolved the lawsuit.  Background on the Mayor's resignation are reported in a September 25, 2016 blog article.

After former Commercial Township Mayor Judson Moore resigned from office, he entered into a May 16, 2016 MOA that was signed by four Township employees who had filed harassment complaints against Moore.  The MOA forbade Moore from harassing the complainants, as well as their friends and relatives.  It also prevented Moore from seeking public office or employment in the Township, forbade him from making "excessive or multiple OPRA requests" or attending public meetings with an intent to "harass, provoke and/or unreasonably interrupt the ongoings" of those meetings and also forbade him from visiting the municipal building except for "general business as a township taxpayer."

Notably, the MOA did not contain any enforcement mechanism except to provide that if any violations of the MOA were not corrected after notice was given, "the parties shall consent to a neutral mediator to determine whether or not such actions shall make this ongoing negotiated agreement null and void."  The Township's March 29, 2017 lawsuit alleged that Moore announced at a fire district meeting that the MOA "does not hold water," presumably because of the lack of a meaningful enforcement mechanism.

The settlement of the Township's lawsuit against Moore took the form of an amended MOA that was signed by the parties and Moore's four harassment complainants on September 7, 2017.  It supersedes the original MOA and amended some of the restrictions that the original MOA imposed upon Moore.  Nothing in the amended MOA prevents Moore from making excessive OPRA requests or restricts him from attending public meetings and visiting the municipal building.  The amended MOA only prevents Moore from becoming a paid or unpaid Township employee, running for Township Committee and from initiating conversations with the employees who accused him of harassment concerning those accusations. 

As for enforcement, the amended MOA provides that if anyone needs to enforce the new MOA's terms in court, the winner will have his or her attorney fees reimbursed by the amended MOA's violators.  The amended MOA also contains releases by the four employees, Moore and the Township from anything that has happened in the past.