NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—In a surprising turn of events, the city's Ethics Board made history when it decided to fine the President of the City Council $100 for repeated ethics violations on November 12.
Kevin Egan, who was first elected in 2010 and faced no opposition in the 2014 election cycle, admitted in an apology letter sent to the board two days earlier that he failed to comply with disclosure requirements by not revealing one of his rental properties.
Egan failed to disclose all of the real estate he owned on official forms filed in four out of the five years he served as Councilman: 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015.
The board's decision to issue the minimum fine possible came quickly and without much discussion, but it marked the first time on record that a New Brunswick government official had ever been found to have violated the state's ethics laws since they were overhauled in 1991.
Egan sent the apology as the Ethics Board was preparing to act on a September 17 complaint filed by the author of this article, the second of two that identified omissions in certified disclosure statements filed by City Council members.
Both of the ethics issues stemmed from elected officials falling short of disclosure requirements intended to publicize the financial interests of local officials to prevent conflicts of interest from influencing the government.
"I apologize to the Board for my carelessness," wrote Egan. "Like most of us, I have numerous and competing employment, personal, and government responsibilities."
As we reported, Egan earns a $169,798 salary working for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 456 union, and $9,500 as the City Council President.
He became Council President in January 2015, and also serves on the NJ School Development Authority and the Middlesex County Tax Board.
"I said that I was guilty 'cause I didn't put down that property that I own," said Egan at the December 2 City Council meeting. "I screwed up," he admitted after the meeting.
Known as Financial Disclosure Statements (FDS), the documents must be filed annually by certain city officials, including those who are elected.
Elected officials, and many other government workers, are required to disclose any source of income greater than $2,000 for them, their spouse, or any of their children who live with them on the form.
The forms also require officials to disclose any businesses or real estate that they own.
Failing to submit an FDS form before April 30 of any given year, or failing to fully complete it by leaving something off the form is considered an ethics violation.
The complaint against Egan was filed just two weeks after a heated back-and-forth at the September 2 City Council meeting.
At the meeting, Egan criticized this reporter for not owning any real estate in New Brunswick, and attempted to prematurely end that public meeting after he was asked how many homes he owns in response. He later called this reporter to apologize for his behavior.
Then, Egan filed an amended FDS form just one day after New Brunswick Today published an article showing he had not disclosed his 50% ownership of a rental property at 22 New York Avenue.
In the newly-filed form, Egan admits to owning two homes jointly with his wife, and two more through limited liability companies, including the one on New York Avenue.
But back in 2013, two days after buying 50% of the home with business partner Antoine "Tony" Chedid, Egan filed a form that failed to disclose his stake in it.
Egan also failed to disclose the property on forms that he filed in 2014 and 2015. In 2011, his first year in office, Egan declared no real estate at all.
Since first took office in 2011, Egan has accumulated ownership in three homes in addition to his residence.
That same year, Egan bought a second home for $350,000, conveniently located across the street from Mayor James Cahill's vacation home in Berkeley Township.
Next, he and Chedid picked up the two properties in the Buccluech Park neighborhood.
One of the rental homes is next to Egan's house on Jefferson Avenue, and the other, 22 New York Avenue, is located next to the home of Egan's father, State Assemblyman Joseph Egan.
Egan said the repeated omission of 22 New York Avenue from his FDS forms was "inadvertent."
The complaints also sparked the board to recommend the city government "highlight the importance of filing a complete and accurate" statement every year.
Although Egan has professed support for additional ethics training, the City Council still has not implemented any such policy six weeks later.
"I agree with Mr. Kratovil's remedy that the City implement more extensive & comprehensive ethics training for City employees & officers," wrote Egan in the November 10 letter.
On October 15, in response to an ethics complaint against another Councilman, the board had voted 5-0 to recommend the city government provide written documentation and training to assist the city's officers and employees in filling out the disclosure forms.
The motion also called for the board to recommend "to the Mayor and Council that it communicate with each of its employees, its Councilpersons, and members of its boards and commissions, highlighting the importance of filing a complete and accurate financial disclosure statements."
Violating the Local Government Ethics Law, and the corresponding Code of Ethics for the City of New Brunswick, comes with a penalty of between $100 and $500.
After reading Egan's letter, the board voted to find it unnecessary for him to appear in person, and then voted to fine him $100.
Egan was the second Council member to be targeted with an ethics complaint filed by this reporter. Just one month earlier, Council Vice President Glenn Fleming escaped a similar fate on a technicality.
While Kevin Egan apologized for "carelessness," Fleming showed up in person to defend himself against the accusation and never apologized for failing to disclose income as required.
DEFIANT COUNCIL MEMBER CALLS SIMILAR CHARGES AGAINST HIM "BOGUS"
Councilman Fleming listed no sources of income at all on the financial disclosure statement (FDS) forms he filed in 2014 and 2015, despite holding two public jobs.
The forms require officials disclose any sources of income greater than $2,000 for them or their spouse, as well as any children they have living in their home.
"I'm not trying to hide any income," Fleming told the Ethics Board. "It was an omission by a mistake because, as a teacher or anybody that works or has a job, you deal with papers. Sometimes stuff comes across your desk, you fill it out."
"That was not an ethical lapse. That was just an omission by mistake, or even by–It was an omission trying to do something fast."
Fleming questioned what he would have had to gain by hiding his income as a teacher or a City Councilman: "Let me hide the fact that I'm a Councilman? That I'm here every single two times a month?"
"I don't have anything to hide. My life has always been an open book," Fleming continued. "To even suggest that there was something unethical about this, I can't allow that to be attached to my character."
Fleming averted a fine, but only because the ethics complaint against him was not a "sworn" statement, even though one board member countered that the board had previously accepted complaints that were not sworn.
Still, Fleming's situation was what prompted the board to make a recommendation for stronger policies to the Mayor and City Council.
On August 13, the city's Ethics Board agreed to invite the City Councilman to attend their next meeting. Six days after that, Fleming filed an amended FDS form to reflect both his and his wife's income.
But hardly anyone at all showed up to the September meeting where Fleming was supposed to explain himself. Only two of the six board members were there and the meeting was rescheduled for October.
Because the complaint against Fleming was not a "sworn" statement, the board chose not to pursue the matter as a potential violation, effectively keeping him from being fined like Egan.
Rather, the conversation was framed as a "discussion" where the board "requested" Fleming's presence.
"The matter is being handled as a discussion item," said Ethics Board attorney James Clarkin, who pointed out that in beginning in 2014, FDS forms could only be submitted electronically.
"It is clear to me… that the 2014 and 2015 financial statements were incomplete," said Clarkin. "Now, having said that, I would like to give the Councilman an opportunity to offer his comments and hopefully an explanation for how those filings work."
While it's no secret Fleming earns a salary as a school teacher in Hamilton Township, and an extra $9,000 each year for his service on the City Council, there was no way to know if he or his wife were taking in additional income.
As it turned out, Fleming had failed to declare his wife's income from her job at the West-Windsor-based financial firm Black Rock, a company that was once considering building their new headquarters in New Brunswick.
Fleming also serves as an elder at the Abundant Life Family Worship Center (ALFWC), one of the largest churches in New Brunswick.
Fleming, who arrived 15 minutes late and was permitted to sit at the table with the board members, briefly provided a defense of his actions.
Fleming stressed that he disclosed both of his jobs and his wife's job in the 2013 FDS he filed, the last year that the forms were "on paper."
With his back facing the audience, Fleming blamed the omissions in 2014 and 2015 on the online software the state government uses to facilitate the filing of the FDS forms.
"It may have been an omission because sometimes when you go online and you do it electronically, if you don't save it then you just hit send, and sometimes it doesn't come out," said the Councilman, who was first elected in 2012.
The board's Chairwoman, Reverend Lauren Carrington, downplayed Fleming's violations.
"Just for clarification purposes, this is not an ethical issue," said Carrington. "When we looked at our bylaws it's not an ethical issue."
"It's not an issue of him filing it on time, it's an issue of making sure they understand the idiosyncracies of the stupid computer program," Carrington added.
After the public meeting that lasted less than a half-hour, Fleming left the room, exchanging warm sentiments with the board members on his way out.
Rev. Joseph Hooper, another preacher, quit the Ethics Board after less than a year of service after the Fleming case, but before the Egan case.
Hooper's replacement Donna Pincavage was nominated to the vacancy on the Ethics Board by the City Council on November 4. Egan abstained from that vote, and Pincavage did not show up to the ethics meeting.
At a November 4 City Council meeting, Fleming criticized this reporter for giving the city advice on its choice of ethics attorneys, while pushing ethics complaints against city officials at the same time.
This reporter countered that it was understandable him and Egan would be upset, since they were the targets of ethics complaints.
"[My criticism] has nothing to do with whatever you filed against me, which was bogus anyway," responded Fleming.
"Did the Ethics Board say it was bogus?" this reporter shot back.
Fleming did not respond and Egan intervened, saying "Let's move on."
CITY HALL TRIED TO INSTALL LAWYER WHO BOTCHED ETHICS HEARING
As the city's Ethics Board prepared to address the complaint against Egan, someone inside City Hall apparently decided to swap in a new attorney.
Anthony Vignuolo, who represents the North Brunswick Board of Education and the Middlesex County Vocational School District, was recommended for the special counsel job by City Attorney TK Shamy.
He had represented the city's Ethics Board as its "special counsel" for a few months in late 2014 and early 2015, but was replaced by James Clarkin earlier this year.
Vignuolo is infamous for his role in giving an unfair advantage to candidates supported by the local political machine in the city's first-ever school board election in 2013.
Those candidates were also supported by Rev. Carrington, the Ethics Board's reluctant Chairwoman, and their funding came from campaign accounts linked to Mayor James Cahill.
Vignuolo's prior term as "special counsel" to the Ethics Board included the city government's first ethics hearing in two decades.
The hearing, held in January, was also sparked by a complaint from the author of this article.
In the case, Vignuolo neglected to make a proper record of the hearing, then subpoenaed this newspaper in an attempt to force us to turn over our videos and prevent us from making them public.
Vignuolo also gave board members inaccurate information about the number of votes required for the defendant to be found guilty, failed to solicit written questions from the public, and later claimed that an audio recording had been made when none existed.
The board's own operating procedures say hearings are supposed to be recorded or transcribed "verbatim" by a court reporter.
"Its public hearings shall be recorded verbatim either by a CSR [certified shorthand reporter] or by an approved tape transcription device operated by a qualified operator," reads the procedures.
Vignuolo would have likely been allowed to proceed as the attorney for the Ethics Board once again, had New Brunswick Today not exposed a potential conflict of interest: Vignuolo and Egan have known each other since Egan was a child.
"He was my Little League coach," Egan admitted under questioning on November 5, 2014, at a videotaped City Council meeting.
That night, Egan approved giving $4,000 in taxpayer funds to Vignuolo, in order for him to represent the Ethics Board in the prior matter. Since then, Vignuolo has been paid an additional $1,829.92 for his work on the case.
After being challenged on the ethics of Vignuolo representing the Ethics Board while Egan was under investigation, Egan changed his story.
"It was his brother that was my baseball coach, not him. He sponsored the baseball team," Egan said after New Brunswick Today asked: "Do you think it's fair for your Little League baseball coach to represent the Ethics Board when you are the defendant? Is that ethical?"
"You weren't being accurate when you said he was your baseball coach of your Little League team?" NBToday followed up.
"He was the sponsor of my baseball team. It was his brother that was my baseball coach."
But perhaps more interesting than the potential conflict of interest was the confusion surrounding a simple question: Who is responsible for selecting the Ethics Board's attorney?
Clarkin had originally said that the decision "originates with City Hall."
"The decision as to the attorney as I understand it orginates with City Hall," said Clarkin, who is law partners with Vignuolo's son. "It holds Mr. Vignoulo's credentials in the highest regard."
But while City Attorney TK Shamy initially confirmed Clarkin's view, he backtracked under questioning at the October 21 City Council meeting:
NBToday (to Egan): Who makes the decision of who the ethics board attorney is?
TK Shamy: The City Attorney does.
NBToday (to Egan): Is it true that Mr. Shamy has selected Anthony Vignuolo to represent the Ethics Board?
Shamy: A simple answer would be yes.
NBToday (to Egan): Do you think it's fair for your Little League baseball coach to represent the Ethics Board when you are the defendant? Is that ethical?
Shamy: Let me clarify. For purposes of, the City Attorney's office makes a recommendation to the Ethics Board relative to counsel. It's actually the Ethics Board that decides to have that particular individual represent them. And that's how we did it with Mr. Vignuolo… It wouldn't be appropriate for someone from my office or myself, obviously, to represent the Ethics Board when it involves a member of Council. And that is exactly why Mr. Hamilton, when he was city attorney, had selected Mr. Vignuolo in the first instance, in the matter that started last year.
NBToday (to Egan): OK, so you've known him since you were a child?
NBToday (to Egan): And he's going to represent the Ethics Board when you're the defendant? [That] is what the city attorney has decided? Of all the attorneys in New Jersey?
Shamy: The city attorney hasn't decided that. Let me say again, I make a recommendation–The City Attorney does. The Ethics Board decides whether they want to go with that recommendation.
NBToday (to Egan): When will they be asked to make that decision?
Shamy: I assume before they start the next proceeding, which involves Mr. Egan, if that's what you're referring to.
But when Ethics Board showed up to their November 12 meeting, at least one member was taken by surprise to find out Clarkin was still their attorney. It did not appear they had been asked about the decision of who would represent them.
One member stated that they thought "Tony Vignuolo" would be the attorney for the hearing. But Claribel Azcona-Barber, an employee of the Mayor's Office who serves on the Board, said she thought it was still Clarkin.
TK Shamy had already explained that the city had changed its mind about hiring Vignuolo again, with a vague statement at the November 4 Council meeting.
"I was under the impression, because I knew that Mr. Vignuolo has been involved with the Ethics Board, was coming back to represent the Ethics Board on his matter," said Shamy.
"After conferring with Mr. Clarkin… it's my understanding from speaking with Mr. Clarkin that he will continue through the end of the year at least."
The moment of truth came on November 12 when Clarkin arrived at the meeting and not Vignuolo.
After less than a half-hour, the board had voted to find Egan guilty and fine him $100.
Given the chance to respond in public, Egan declined to address the matter.
"No this is not the place for to talk about that," Egan responded during a City Council meeting. "This is an Ethics Board decision, so I don't have any comment on that right now."
"Is it true you're the first person in the history of New Brunswick–the first government official–to be found guilty?"
"I don't know that to be true, so I can't comment on it."