Tuesday, June 16, 2015

LFB Ethics Complaint Roster in Excel format.

In December 2014, the Local Finance Board, which handles the vast majority of Local Government Ethics Law complaints filed against local and county public officials, sent me an Excel version of its roster of closed ethics complaints.  This is the first time I have received the complaint roster in Excel format--previous lists were printed out from an Excel file and then scanned.  Having the roster in Excel is useful because the public can now sort and filter the list which could not be done with the the scanned versions previously offered.

The Excel version is on-line here.  I have just submitted another request for an Excel file of the present version of the complaint roster and I'll update this blog entry to include the new roster upon receipt.  By comparing the two version, one can determine which ethics files were resolved between the dates of the two versions (i.e. during the first six months of 2015) and then, through a separate OPRA request, one can get copies of the newly closed matters and find out if they resulted in a dismissal or a violation.

Five Dismissed ethics complaints on-line

The Local Finance Board (LFB) dismissed ethics complaints against the following public officials.  All of the dismissal notices are on-line here.  Although they are somewhat dated, I decided to put them on-line because the LFB does not provide the public with any on-line information about any of its complaints and I have long believed that the disposition of ethics cases are of public interest regardless of whether they result in a violation or a dismissal.  Following is some information about each complaint in the PDF at the above link.  Details about the nature of the ethics charge is in the body of the dismissal letters.
Englewood Cliffs (Bergen)
Lauren Eastwood v. Joseph Parisi and Joseph Favaro
Complaint No. 13-057
Complaint received December 15,2013
Dismissal letter dated March 24, 2014

Gloucester County
John Alice v. Vincent Nestore and Larry Wallace
Complaint No. 11-054
Complaint received July 28, 2011
Dismissal letter dated April 16, 2014

Haddon Heights (Camden)
Scott Alexander v. Edward Forte, Jr.
Complaint No. 13-056
Complaint received November 8, 2013
Dismissal letter dated March 12, 2014

Elizabeth (Union)
Libera Paolucci v. J. Christian Bollwage, No. 13-052
Complaint No. 13-052
Complaint received November 7, 2013
Dismissal letter dated March 12, 2014

Hoboken (Hudson)
Theresa Castellano, Beth Mason, Michael Russo and Tim Occhiptinti v. Dawn Zimmer and Ravi Bhalla
Complaint No. 13-001
Complaint received November 15, 2013
Dismissal letter dated April 4, 2014

Monday, June 15, 2015

Passaic and Bergen Counties urged to inform citizens of ethics complaint procedures.

It seems obvious, at least to me, that if a county or municipality has established an ethics board to receive citizens' Local Government Ethics Law complaints against county or municipal officials, it should make contact information for the ethics board readily available on the county or municipal website.  Unfortunately, Bergen and Passaic Counties, both of which have established their own ethics boards, provide the public with no on-line information on how to file and ethics complaint or whom to send it to.

On June 12, 2015, I endeavored to file ethics complaints against officials in both counties who reportedly failed to file their Financial Disclosure Statements (FDS)  My complaints against a Passaic County Freeholder and a Bergen County Planning Board Secretary are here and here, respectively.  However, neither county's website provided contact information for their ethics board which required me to search Freeholder Board minutes and rosters of FDS forms on file with the Local Finance Board (LFB) in order to identify members of both ethics boards who happened to be attorneys.  From there, I wrote to each attorney (see my complaints at the link above) and requested that my complaints be submitted to the correct party.

I don't think that most citizens would be willing to go through the trouble I went through and would probably have given up.   I am not certain whether the lack of information is a mere oversight or a deliberate effort to dissuade people from filing complaints.

Today, I received correspondence from both attorneys (Passaic's and Bergen's responses are here and here, respectively) advising me of the correct person to whom ethics complaints should be directed.   Given that this information is apparently nowhere else to be found, I have listed it below, as a public service:

For Bergen County, complaints may be e-mailed to Ethics Board Attorney Frank Kapusinski, Esq., at FKapusinski@co.bergen.nj.us with a copy to Board Secretary Roseann Fatigati at RFatigati@co.bergen.nj.us.  Those who would rather mail or fax their complaint, should mail it to Kapusinski in care of the Bergen County Counsel's Office, 1 Bergen County Plaza, Room 580, Hackensack, NJ  07601-6176 or fax it to 201-336-6966.

For Passaic County, complaints may be e-mailed to Ethics Board Attorney Laurence R. Maddock, Esq., at lrm@lawwmm.com.  Those who would rather mail or fax their complaint, should mail it to Maddock in care of Waters McPherson McNeill PC, 300 Lighting Way, 7th Floor, Secaucus, NJ 07094-3647 or fax it to 201-863-2866.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Marriage counselor loses bid to erase discipline case from the web.

A New Jersey licensed marriage counselor who had been previously disciplined for engaging in the unlicensed practice of professional counseling, lost her bid to vacate the disciplinary consent order because its appearance on the State's website "has interfered with her ability to gain employment."

In a June 12, 2015 opinion (on-line here), the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court rejected Sharlene Margulis Harris' argument that the Professional Counselor Examiners Committee's decision to put her disciplinary consent order on the internet "undercuts her credentials" and "no longer serve the public interest."  The Appellate panel held that "accessibility of the consent order via the internet is consistent with public policy as declared in the Open Public Records Act."

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Let's abolish the local and county level ethics boards.

I submitted written testimony today to the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee regarding Senate Bill 729 which seeks to make some fundamental changes to the Local Government Ethics Law.  S729 is discussed on my blog here and my written testimony is set forth below.

June 11, 2015
Hon. Jim Whelan, Chairman and Committee members:

As a person who has filed many ethics complaints and who was a member of the Local Ethics Board in Franklin Township (Somerset County) until the Board was disbanded by act of the Township Council, I would like to make the following comments on the bill:

1. The Franklin Township Council disbanded our local ethics board, wisely in my view, because of its cost. A December 11, 2013 news article on the Council's actions--on-line here--notes the Council's position that it "could not afford the $50,000 that would be required annually to operate the municipal ethics board."

What had occurred is that our Board began vigorously enforcing the ethics law and the respondents in the cases we brought demanded hearings, as is their right under N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.24.  Our local ethics board, similar to most, was comprised of five non-attorney volunteers who did not have the ability to conduct contested hearings without having an attorney's advice and participation every step of the way.  Legal services, as you all realize, do not come cheap. Ultimately, and somewhat ironically, the Township Council, faced with the attorney fees that our enforcement activities generated, felt that it was not wise to have a municipal ethics board when the state Local Finance Board would take over our board's duties if our local board was disbanded.

Out of the nearly six hundred counties and municipalities in the State, only a small number--perhaps less than 50--have established their own ethics boards.  The Local Finance Board's list of those counties and municipalities is on-line here.

While I haven't examined each of the local and county ethics boards, the ones that I have looked at appear to exist only because they were established long ago and are not doing a particularly good job in enforcing the ethics law.  I believe that if these local boards were to vigorously enforce the law their municipal councils, following Franklin's logic, would likely disband them once the attorney bills started to come in.

In sum, I ask that the Committee please consider an amendment that would abolish all the county and local boards and place sole enforcement under the State Ethics Commission.

2. If the Committee decides to retain local and county ethics boards, I ask that N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.10 be amended to permit local and county boards to enforce penalties in the municipal court.  As you are undoubtedly aware, N.J.S.A. 2A:58-11(b) requires penalty enforcement actions to be brought in the Superior Court unless "the statute that establishes the civil penalty provides that the action my be brought in the municipal court."  In my experience with the Franklin Municipal Ethics Board, we could not justify paying our attorney to file actions in Superior Court to collect fines of $100 to $500.  The municipal court would have been an attractive enforcement option.

3. Also drawing from my experience with the Franklin Municipal Ethics Board, it was hard to justify enforcing penalties given that any money that we collected would, in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2A:58-11(f), go to the State Treasurer.  In other words, to enforce the ethics laws, we would have to spend more money on legal fees than the fine's amount in order to go to Superior Court and any penalties we did enforce would go to the state rather than the township.  N.J.S.A. 2A:58-11(f) permits "a different disposition" of the penalties collected if the Committee wished to provide for it in S729.

Thank you for your attention to these matters.

Very truly yours,
John Paff
Update--June 16, 2015:  The Senate Committee favorably reported the bill, but did not incorporate my testimony.  So, I submitted a letter to the sponsor of the Assembly companion bill.

Update--July 20, 2015:  The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that "Kean introduced an amendment that would abolish local boards,"  The Senate Floor amendments are referenced here.

Judge: Margate fireman's theft arrest is just the tip of the iceberg.

In March 2015, several media reported that Michael C. Palmer, a lieutenant in the Margate Fire Department, was charged with stealing more than $75,000 from his union.  An example of the media coverage is on-line here.

In June 4, 2015 written opinion, however, Superior Court Judge Nelson C. Johnson indicated that Palmer's arrest wasn't just a "lone theft" but just the tip of a "wide-ranging investigation involving many people and extending beyond the City of Margate."

Judge Johnson's ruling, a copy of which is on-line here, resolved my November 2014 OPRA lawsuit that sought information as to Palmer's alleged misdeeds (background on the lawsuit is on-line here).  In explaining why the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office was justified in responding to my OPRA request in a manner that was "neither precise nor concise," Johnson wrote:
It's apparent to this court that there is much more entailed in this on-going investigation than the misconduct a single fireman. Scrutiny of Mr. Palmer's conduct, together with information received from him, has revealed more than a lone theft of funds from the Firefighter's Local 41 account. The investigation into his conduct has opened the door on other matters, and shed light on the potential misdeeds of other public officials and licensed professionals. The arrest of Mr. Palmer launched a wide-ranging investigation involving many people and extending beyond the City of Margate.
Hopefully, the public will soon learn the results of this investigation.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Court dismisses lawsuit against officials accused of executing search warrant at wrong address.

Jennifer Webb-McRae
Cumberland County Prosecutor
On Monday, June 8, 2015, United States District Court Judge Noel L. Hillman dismissed a Millville couple's lawsuit against a Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office detective who had caused a search warrant to be executed at the couple's rented home at 726 Whitaker Avenue. According to the couple's lawsuit, the "search warrant indicated that the premises to be searched was 762 Whitaker Avenue" and that the detective apparently transposed two digits in the street address causing the wrong house to be searched.

In their Amended Complaint (on-line here) the couple, John and Mary Greer, said that Detective Francine Webb "did negligently identify [their] home to be searched" and that the resulting April 19, 2012 search caused them to suffer a wrongful arrest, personal injury and property damage at the hands of State Trooper I.J. Boland who had apparently executed the warrant to Webb's direction.

Judge Hillman, however, ruled that the Greers' complaint was "bare-bones" and did not contain enough details regarding the incident or their damages to withstand the defendants' motion to dismiss. According the Judge Hillman's opinion, "other than generally stating that Webb and Boland searched the wrong house and used excessive force, [Mr. and Mrs. Greer] do not ascribe any specific wrongdoing to Webb or Boland."  The complaint was ruled to be deficient because "everyone is left to guess as to Webb’s and Boland’s role in the execution of the search warrant at plaintiffs’ home." Hillman also criticized the Greers' complaint because it did not show that they had complied with the New Jersey Tort Claims Act.  Judge Hillman's Opinion and Order are on-line here and here.

Since more than two years have now elapsed since the search warrant was executed, it appears that the Greers cannot now refile their suit because the statement of limitations has now apparently run.  The Greers' lawyer in the matter was Joseph M. Chiarello of Jacob & Chiarello, LLC of Millville.

Senate Committee to mull ethics code overhaul.

On Thursday, June 11, 2015, at 1 p.m., the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee will consider and receive public comment on S729, which seeks to make sweeping changes to New Jersey's Local Government Ethics Law and School Ethics Act.

The most substantial change that the bill (S729 is on-line here) seeks is to abolish the School Ethics Commission, take local government ethics enforcement away from the Local Finance Board and to assign jurisdiction of both school and local government ethics to State Ethics Commission (SEC).  The measure will also allow the SEC to promulgate a statewide ethics code, permit county and local ethics board to adopt codes that supplement the state code and increase the maximum penalty for ethics violations for $500 to $10,000.

S729 is sponsored by Republicans Thomas H. Kean, Jr. and Jennifer Beck.  An identical version in the General Assembly, A1195, is sponsored by Republican David W. Wolfe.

The public may attend the hearing and offer testimony.  The hearing will be held in Committee Room 7 on the second floor of the State House Annex in Trenton.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Recent court filings provide some insight into wrongdoing alleged against Wildwood Crest police officials.

On May 20, 2015, the Borough of Wildwood Crest (Cape May County) formally asked United States District Court Judge Joseph E. Irenas to disqualify Michelle J. Douglass, of Somers Point, from representing former Wildwood Crest Police Sergeant Thomas J. Hunt in his lawsuit against the Borough, Mayor Carl Groon, Police Chief Thomas DePaul and others.  The Borough's application, filed by attorney Todd J. Gelfand of Voorhees, is based on Douglass' recent decision to represent former Wildwood Crest Police Lieutenant Michael Hawthorne.  In his application to Judge Irenas, Gelfand argues that Douglass is conflicted because Hawthorne was previously a defendant in Hunt's lawsuit against the Borough and was part of the Borough's "litigation control group."  Hunt and Hawthorne oppose Douglass' disqualification and their court filings give some insight into alleged wrongdoing by DePaul, former Captain David Mayer and others.

Selected documents from the hundreds of pages of recent court filings are on-line here.  Included are Gelfand's motion and supporting brief to disqualify Douglass, Hawthorne's certification and Douglass' brief and a court order requiring the Borough to respond to Hunt's opposition by June 15, 2015 and for Hunt to reply to the Borough's response by June 22, 2015.  The following are some points, extracted from the filings, that I believe to be of interest:

1. Hawthorne and Hunt accuse Mayer and DePaul of "manufacturing" a memo that was used in the Borough's disciplinary action against Hunt.  The memo at issue is dated January 23, 2010 and was purportedly issued by Captain Bradley.  According to Douglass' brief, DePaul and Meyer had created the memo in 2011.  Douglass argues that the memo could not have been written in January 2010 because it refers to Hunt's "recent suspension" and that the suspension wasn't actually issued until after the date that the memo was allegedly authored.

2. Douglass argues that Gelfand later turned over another version of the same allegedly manufactured memo dated January 29, 2010 rather than January 23, 2010.  She claims that Gelfand is therefore a "witness as to the falsified January 23, 2010 memo" and therefore is conflicted from representing DePaul, Mayer and the Borough simultaneously.

3. Hawthorne alleges that a grant intended for Domestic Violence use was actually used by Mayer "as a personal slush fund."

4. Hawthorne alleges that Cape May Prosecutor Robert Taylor's real motivation for eliminating Hawthorne from the lieutenant position was to "allow for the promotion of [Taylor's] nephew, Wildwood Crest Officer Lloyd" to the position.