Friday, January 27, 2017

Apparently, the two men who terrorized a woman in her Aberdeen home at 2 a.m. were drunk, off-duty cops.

On December 31, 2016, I wrote "Aberdeen confidentially paid out $15,000 to settle police invasion of privacy lawsuit" about the Township's $15,000 settlement to a local woman named Yolanda Mitter who claimed that police banged on her door and terrorized her at 2 a.m. for no reason.  Since it didn't seem plausible that police would just show up at someone's home at 2 a.m. for no reason, a subsequent Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request was filed to get police reports and other documents that would shed some light on what prompted police to visit Mitter's home.

Today, Aberdeen responded to the OPRA request and, although the documents are heavily redacted, it appears that two intoxicated men did come to Mitter's house at 2 a.m. in their own personal vehicle to menace her.  From one witness statement (presumably Mitter's), the two men were drunk and drove from a tavern to Mitter's home and banged on the door and yelled at her in order to "play a joke on" Mitter's children's' father.  According to the witness' statement, the driver of the vehicle beeped the horn, gunned the engine and said "I know he's in there" and told the witness that he wasn't leaving until she "came downstairs so he can give me what [she] wanted and what [she] needed."

This activity alarmed the witness and caused her to dial 911.  When Aberdeen police arrived in response to the 911 call, the two men were still on the property, but without talking to the witness/resident, the investigating officers and the two men left.  Later in her statement, the witness said that one of the men, who identified himself to the witness' son as a being a police officer, came to the witness' home the next day to apologize.  According to the Mitter's children's father's statement, he was childhood friends with one of the men who frightened Mitter and he described his friend as being a police officer.  He said that this officer told him that he visited the home at 2 a.m. "just to bust [his] balls" and admitted that he "was drinking." 

According to Aberdeen's response to the OPRA request, no criminal charges against anyone arose out of this incident.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Former Commercial CFO fined $300 for Financial Disclosure Statement violations. However, ethics charges against Township Committee members for hiring CFO's company to train Township employee were dismissed.

On December 14, 2016, the Local Finance Board (LFB) fined Commercial Township's (Cumberland County) former Chief Financial Officer Judson Moore a total of $300 for failing to report on his 2014 and 2015 Financial Disclosure Statements (FDS) that he owned a business that conducts training seminars for local government officials and for failing to report the addresses of local real estate he owned on his 2011 FDS.  However, the LFB dismissed a complaint against Moore and Township Committee members George Garrison, William Riggin and Fletcher Jamison for authorizing a $99 payment to Moore's business to provide training for Township Clerk Hannah Nichols.

Both complaints were filed on August 26, 2013.  Complaint No. 13-035 alleged that Moore had simply wrote on his 2011 FDS that he "own[ed] parcels of vacant land in Commercial Township" rather than listing the address, block and lot of each parcel.  This failure netted Moore a Notice of Violation and a $100 fine.  Complaint No. 13-034 alleged that Moore and the three Committee members violated the Local Government Ethics Law by hiring Moore's company, Advance Learning, LLC, to provide training to a township employee.  The LFB tagged Moore with a Notice of Violation and a $200 fine for "declaring 'None' in the field requesting the name and address of all business organizations" in which he held an interest on his 2014 and 2015 FDS filings.

In dismissing the charges that Moore, Garrison, Riggin and Jamison acted unethically by authorizing Township money to go to a company owned by the Township CFO, LFB Chair Timothy J. Cunningham wrote that paying Moore's company was "not an action that could reasonably be expected to impair [Garrison's, Riggin's and Jamison's] objectivity or independence of judgment in the exercise of [their] official duties."  Cunningham noted that Moore advertised Advance Learning, LLC's seminars to New Jersey's southern six counties and that he did not participate in authorizing the payment.

After serving as CFO, Moore became the Township's mayor until his abrupt resignation on March 12, 2016.  It is presently unknown whether he has appealed either Notice of Violation.

After a three and a half year investigation, Local Finance Board says that Commercial's and Lawrence's attempt to keep their municipal lawyer in the pension system was not unethical.

Lawrence Mayor Miletta
On December 14, 2016, the Local Finance Board (LFB) finally resolved Complaint No. 13-013, which I had filed in April 2013.  I had complained that the members of the Lawrence and Commercial Township Committees (both in Cumberland County) had in 2008 created new positions for Thomas E. Seeley, who served as Township Solicitor for both townships. I alleged that those positions were designed to keep Seeley in the state's pension system despite a 2007 law that specifically sought to exclude professional services contractors, such as municipal lawyers, architects and engineers from being in the pension system.

My complaint found support in two documents.  First was an August 23, 2010 letter written to Seeley by Hank Schwedes, Supervising Pensions and Benefits Specialist from the Division of Pensions and Benefits.  Regarding Lawrence Township's appointment of Seeley to the position of "Property Administrator," Schwedes wrote that "the Division concludes that the position of 'Property Administrator' is a position designed to disguise [Seeley's] true relationship, thereby facilitating [Seeley's] continued membership in the PERS."  Schwede's letter concluded with an administrative determination that retroactively removed the pension credits Seeley had received by virtue of the new positions created by both townships.

Second, I presented the LFB with the Commercial Township Committee's August 21, 2008 meeting minutes in which former Township Administrator Judson Moore candidly admitted that the "Property Manager" position was being awarded to Mr. Seeley in direct response to the legislation to ensure that Mr. Seeley remained enrolled in the pension system. ("Mr. Moore said part of it is due to new ordinance mandated by the state Determining Positions Eligible for the Defined Contribution Retirement Program. This is a new form of pension plan for certain municipal employees. Solicitors cannot be paid 'other expenses' and a salary, it either has to be by salary or by other expenses. What this does is take his salary and other expenses figures which were already allocated in the budget and placing it under one category, which is his salary for pension purposes.")

In its December 14, 2016 Notice of Dismissal, Local Finance Board Chairman Timothy J. Cunningham dismissed the complaint against Commercial Township Committee members George W. Garrison, Fletcher Jamison and William Riggin; Lawrence Township Committee members Thomas Sheppard, Elmer Bowman, and Joseph Miletta.  Cunningham's letter also dismissed the complaint against Moore and Seeley even though I had not named them in my complaint.

Cunningham's letter noted that the Pension Division's review had discovered that "Seeley was not entitled to to membership in the [pension system]."  Once discovered, Seeley's "service time was reset."  Cunningham's letter held that the fact that Seeley "did not in fact collect any benefits from the retirement system" precluded a finding that anyone had done anything unethical.

I have written before about Seeley and Moore.  On September 10, 2012 I wrote "Township defends its tax-challenged municipal attorney" about the Internal Revenue Service having served notices of levy seizing the money that Lawrence Township owed Mr. Seeley for his legal services in order to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal tax liens docketed against him.  On September 25, 2016, I wrote "Released documents claim that former Commercial Township Mayor used racial slur against fellow Township Committee member" about documents received in response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) lawsuit filed against the Township to discover the real reason that Moore had abruptly resigned as Commercial Township Mayor.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Identity of rebuked Hunterdon County Family Part judge disclosed.

The Appellate Division's practice is to not identify, in its written opinions, trial judges whose orders are reversed.  The Division's opinions, however, frequently identify trial judges whose opinions are affirmed.  This unfortunate practice makes it difficult for members of the public to identify trial judges who have a much higher than average reversal rate.

The Appellate Division's December 30, 2016 opinion in a domestic violence case captioned T.G. v. W.C., Docket No. A-5177-14T3 is consistent with the practice. In this case, Appellate Judges Carmen Messano and Michael A. Guadagno harshly rebuked a Hunterdon County Family Court judge who entered a final restraining order (FRO) against a man identified only by his initials W.C.  The opinion criticizes the trial judge for his "troubling statements," "the haphazard manner in which the hearing was conducted" and "erroneous information" given to W.C. about how his testimony would be used.  The details regarding the judge's improper statements and conduct are set forth in the opinion at the link above.

On December 30, 2016, I submitted a records request to the Appellate Division seeking the name of the trial judge.  (Note that the judiciary is not subject to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and that record requests need to be submitted according to the judiciary's records access procedure.)  I was informed today by Appellate Division Deputy Clerk John Grant that the trial judge was the Hon. Bradford M. Bury.  According to a January 30, 2013 Patch article, "Watchung, Green Brook Men Nominated for Legislative Positions," Bury hails from Watchung and was appointed by Governor Christie in 2013 and will up for tenure consideration in 2020.  Bury has served as an assistant prosecutor in both Union and Morris Counties.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Board Attorney: OK for Board to hire public relations firm that worked for majority of Board members' campaigns.

The 17th page of the Elizabeth (Union County) Board of Education's May 12, 2016 meeting minutes show that the Board retained by a 6-2 vote Strategic Message Management, Inc. as a vendor at a cost not to exceed $50,000.  According to Board member Daniel Nina, the firm was hired "on as-needed basis" at "an hourly rate when we need the firm to represent the district."

After a motion was made and seconded to hire the firm, Board member Carlos Trujillo wanted the record to reflect that the firm has done "political consulting work for seven members of this Board of Education."  Trujillo asked Board Counsel Jonathan Williams of DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick & Cole to confirm that there was no conflict "for anyone voting in the affirmative for this even though [the firm] has done work on the campaigns, the political campaigns of the Board members."  Williams assured Trujillo that no such conflict existed. 

Mr. Williams undoubtedly knows far more about the School Ethics Law than me, but it seems to me that public officials ought to be prohibited from voting to award public money to businesses that do work for them individually.  The law on the subject, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(c), prohibits a school official from officially acting on "any matter where he, a member of his immediate family, or a business organization in which he has an interest, has a direct or indirect financial involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment."  I think that a board member's business relationship with his or her campaign consultant is at least an indirect financial involvement that the public could reasonably expect to impair the Board member's objectivity.

To see all the pages of the May 12, 2016 minutes, as well as the minutes of other Board meetings, visit the Board's website.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Cop's "whistleblower" complaint against Washington Township scheduled for March trial.

Assemblyman Paul Moriarty
A Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) lawsuit filed in 2013 by a Washington Township (Gloucester County) police officer who himself was indicted after arresting a member of the New Jersey General Assembly for drunk driving is scheduled to be tried before Gloucester County Superior Court Judge David W. Morgan on March 13, 2017.  Defendants in the suit include Bob Smith, the Township's former administrator who also did a stint as acting mayor, and recently-retired police chief Rafael Muniz.

In his lawsuit, Joseph DiBuonaventura, who remains suspended from the police department but is seeking reinstatement in a separate court action, claims that Township officials retaliated against him for reporting unknown officers for "fixing" traffic tickets that he had issued in September 2011 to "the relative of retired WTPD Captain John Vanonni."  DiBuonaventura's lawsuit also claimed that Muniz attempted to subvert an investigation into allegations that Muniz's son Lorenzo stole more than $7,000 worth of jewelry from a resident's home.  According to media reports, the younger Muniz was ultimately entered into the Pretrial Intervention (PTI) program.

DiBuonaventura's lawsuit also claimed that he was retaliated against for having arrested former Washington Township mayor (and current member of the New Jersey General Assembly) Paul Moriarty on July 31, 2012 for drunk driving and refusing a submit to an Alcotest.  According to the court filing, in October 2012 Moriarty met with Muniz and others for assistance "in drafting and filing criminal charges against" DiBuonaventura.  With the alleged assistance of Muniz and members of his staff, Moriarty filed twenty-seven criminal charges with the Washington Township Municipal Court.  DiBuonaventura was formally served with thirteen charges on November 19, 2012 and was indicted on May 1, 2013. 

A jury acquitted DiBuonaventura on all charges on March 3, 2015 and the Prosecutor's office also dropped the drunk driving and other charges against Moriarty.  In September 2016, Moriarty received a $50,000 settlement of his civil suit against DiBuonaventura from the Tri-County Joint Insurance Fund, Washington Township's insurer.

The March 27, 2017 trial will likely be postponed because depositions are still being taken.

JIF picks up tab in Assemblyman's $50,000 settlement.

On January 12, 2017, I wrote an article about Assemblyman Paul D. Moriarty settling his lawsuit against Washington Township (Gloucester County) Patrol Officer Joseph DiBuonaventura for $50,000.  In the article, I stated that it was "unclear whether the $50,000 was paid for by DiBuonaventura, Washington Township or the Township's insurance carrier."

Yesterday, Mr. DiBuonaventura reached out to me and waived confidentiality to two September 13, 2016 letters from his attorney, Robert A. Baxter, revealing that the $50,000 was paid by the Tri-County Joint Insurance Fund which insures Washington Township.  DiBuonaventura also told me that the settlement was paid without his consent and that if he had been given an opportunity, he would have fought the settlement and required Moriarty to prove his case in court.

I don't fully understand why the Township's insurer paid the $50,000.  On March 30, 2015, the court dismissed Moriarty's case against the Township and against DiBuonaventura acting "in his official capacity."  According to an April 11, 2015 Philadelphia Inquirer article, the dismissal did not affect Moriarty's case against DiBuonaventura in his "individual capacity" and William C. Popjoy, III, Moriarty's attorney, is quoted as having said "Certainly, the federal court is recognizing our ability to go after Officer DiBuonaventura directly."

If the March 30, 2015 order ended the Township's (and thus the JIF's) responsibility to pay Moriarty, why did the JIF ultimately pay?