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Hub City Ethics, Part 2: Planning Attorney Admits to Taking DEVCO Donations For Over a Decade

Planning Board Attorney Ben Bucca: "I Really Didn't See Myself as a Board Attorney"
Ben Bucca
Ben Bucca on his way to hear the verdict in the case of an ethics complaint filed against him by NBToday Editor Charlie Kratovil Kevin Palomo

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—With his boss of almost thirty years looking on, Benjamin Bucca defended how he solicited and accepted donations from a major developer that often came before the Planning Board he represents in New Brunswick.

"I didn't see really myself as the board attorney... because the board didn't need an attorney," Bucca told the city's ethics board under questioning in the January 16 hearing.

It was just one in a long series of unpleasant, awkward, and sometimes emotional moments in the hearing where Bucca also defended his representation of the Planning Board on numerous occasions when it voted on plans put forth by Rutgers University, where he is employed as the school's women's tennis coach.

Bucca admitted to regularly soliciting the developer New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO) for donations to support an annual "tennis party," a fundraiser to support the Rutgers Women's Tennis team, which he has coached since 2003.

"Over the years, I've had many contributors to the party and DEVCO has been one of them.  They have consistently," said Bucca.  "I don't know if they've given all twelve years I run the party, but they've given most."

"I typically don't even see the checks," Bucca said.  "I have no financial incentive, I don't get a bonus from it."

But the website that first revealed the donation, Rutgers Atheltics own' site, indicated the January 2014 party raised funds for "the team's spring break trip to New Orleans," a trip Bucca went on. 

Bucca, the women's tennis coach at Rutgers University since 2003, came under fire for his questionable decision not to recuse himself on an application to build an apartment building on Mine Street.

Though his other employer, Rutgers University, is not the applicant before the Planning Board, the proposal comes as part of a partnership between the university and several other entities.

As part of the partnership, Rutgers sold the land in question to DEVCO for just $1 in 2013, and it owns neighboring properties as well.

He also represented the Planning Board on numerous other applications that directly involved Rutgers-owned land, including a number of them where Rutgers itself was the applicant.

After the ethics complaint was filed, Bucca recused himself from involvement in the Mine Street application, forcing the hearing to be started over.

Bucca argued that his employment with Rutgers, which pays him more than the city government does, was "so far removed" from his work for the Planning Board that it did not prevent him from representing them, even when Rutgers is before it.

He also claimed that the hearings that the Planning Board held on applications made by Rutgers were "very informal."

Since the complaint was filed in August, the Ethics Board saw the appointment of two new members, the hiring of a "special" counsel, and the selection of a reluctant chairperson who often deferred to the new attorney.

That attorney, Anthony Vignuolo, badgered two witnesses, including the author of this article, but treated Bucca with respect.

Anthony Vignuolo was hired by the city to serve as "special counsel" to the ethics board, and was supposed to earn up to $4,000 for his work.

Tonight, the City Council will decide whether or not to pay Vignuolo an additional sum of $1,812.50 above what they had originally promised him.

As we reported, his work also included drafting a subpoena commanding this newspaper to turn over our videos of the January 16 hearing, which the Ethics Board failed to properly document in violation of its own procedures.

Two weeks later, the Ethics Board convened behind closed doors, and without a public explanation, held a unanimous vote to exonerate Bucca.

They also hired another attorney, Vignuolo's son's law partner, to take his place in an ethics case pending against his own law partner Barnett Hoffman.

It marks what appears to be an end to a comedy of errors made by Vignuolo, the Ethics Board members, and their usual attorney William Hamilton.

But only four board members, each of whom was appointed by longtime Mayor James Cahill, showed up for the vote on whether he violated the city's Ethics Code.  Reverend Joseph Hooper, who lives just a block away from City Hall and was also appointed by Cahill, was nowhere to be found.

It all started with an overcrowded meeting on the Mine Street project, where Bucca asked opponents of the project to leave the hearing room multiple times, and raised the idea of "calling the police" to "force the people to leave."

"Anyone who was here would know this was not a safe room," Bucca told the ethics board.  "God forbid there would have been some smoke or fire."

Bucca more or less admitted to many of the other charges against him in a January 15 ethics hearing, using a variety of excuses to justify conflicts of interest involving his other employer, Rutgers University, and a major developer in the Hub City.

He said he was guided by a Supreme Court decision regarding attorney ethics, which does not apply to the city's Code of Ethics in any way.

"I have to say that kind of guided me," Bucca said.

"There was never any problem, and I never had anyone object to it, and it was out in the open," Bucca said of his involvement in applications submitted to the Planning Board by his other employer.

He also argued that in cases involving Rutgers, the Planning board was "transformed into an advisory board" and as a result, "There were no legal issues."

"Although I was sitting at the table, I wasn't giving any advice," Bucca told the ethics board.  "These things just flow through."

Former City Councilman Robert Recine, one of the new Ethics Board members, asked whether the Planning Board votes or not, in circumstances like those Bucca was referring to.

"They do a vote in terms of approving whatever recommendations... But they don't have any authority over the application itself," Bucca said.

Bucca continues to work for the city's Planning and Rent Control Boards, as well as the South Brunswick Planning Board and the Highland Park Zoning Board of Adjustment, in addition to the coaching job.

Bucca suspected that this reporter filed the complaint against him to drive traffic to NewBrunswickToday.com

"I believe this is really motivated on by an effort on his part to drum up people viewing his website for financial gain," Bucca said. 

There is some debate as to whether the hearing against Bucca was the first ethics hearing in city history.  Published reports indicated Mayor John Lynch, Jr., a cousin of the 24-year incumbent James Cahill, was twice brought up on ethics charges, though the outcome of the hearings are not clear.

"The bit of research we were able to do into your question uncovered an ordinance establishing an ethics board on second reading on July 17, 1991 and signed by the Mayor on July 26, 1991," said Cahill's spokesperson Jennifer Bradshaw.  "I cannot say with any certainty at this point what the 1990 article is referring to in its discussion of a hearing for an ethics matter. "

According to other sources, an ethics hearing that eventually led to the resignation of former City Councilman Joseph Schrum in 2002 was appealed to the Local Finance Board.