NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A powerful official with several public jobs, including a key role at the city’s parking authority, became the second person in the city’s history to be fined for violating New Jersey’s Local Government Ethics Law (LGEL).
Leonard Bier, a longtime attorney for the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA), will be required to pay just $200 as punishment for multiple ethical violations that were brought to light by this newspaper in March 2016.
Bier first joined the NBPA in 1985. Now, more than three decades later, he holds no less than four public jobs and has worked for almost every other parking authority in New Jersey at some point in his career.
Bier was found guilty of failing to disclose multiple sources of income, and of “presiding over his own appointments” at a public meeting based on an “unwritten policy” that the NBPA later changed “to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”
“As an attorney and as the chief legal advisor to the parking authority, Mr. Bier should be held to a higher standard of adherence to the ethical rules and regulations,” concluded the Ethics Board in their resolution convicting him.
Unless someone appeals their decision, the ruling will mark the end of an embarrassing chapter for both the NBPA and the city’s Ethics Board, which initially refused to investigate Bier’s ethical violations despite his own admission of guilt more than eighteen months ago.
With one member absent, the Ethics Board voted 5-0 to find Bier guilty of two distinct breaches of the law based on testimony given in a prior hearing at the city’s public library.
That hearing, held on July 24, was a rare ethics double-header that saw another NBPA official—one who relied on Bier for legal advice—found guilty but let off the hook with no penalty for her apparent violations of the law’s financial disclosure requirements.
With eight structure parking facilities currently operational and another on the way, plus a few surface parking lots, hundreds of on-street parking meters, and an aggressive ticketing program, the NBPA is by far the state’s largest parking authority.
The authority, which operates autonomously from the city government but enjoys the benefit of having its debt guaranteed by the city, has racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in liabilties.
Under Bier’s tenure in power, the NBPA has seen more than its fair share of scandal, with two separate theft investigations into agency workers that led to criminal prosecution, and a shady deal with a tenant that left town in disgrace, owing more than $1 million to their landlord, the NBPA.
Over the years, the agency has steeply jacked up the price of parking, discouraging many people from visiting the city.
At the same time the agency has also become one of the city’s biggest commercial landlords, presently leasing out several floors of office space to Rutgers University, as well as a supermarket and fitness center.
Following massive borrowing for those projects, the city’s credit rating was downgraded and the rating agencies were proven right about their concerns over commercial rental revenue projections when the FreshGrocer supermarket left the public-sector landlord holding the proverbial bag in 2014.
Bier had already admitted to unlawful omissions of income from his own financial forms, which require certain public officials to disclose all of their business interests, New Jersey real estate holdings, and sources of income in excess of $2,000 during the prior calendar year.
But it was Bier’s actions at a January 28, 2016 public meeting of the NBPA Board of Commissioners that led the Ethics Board to bust him for “creating the appearance of a conflict of interest” that benefitted himself and his associates.
The NBPA Board does not record its own meetings beyond written “minutes.” However, that meeting was documented on video by New Brunswick Today’s Jason Liebman.
At the brief “re-organization meeting,” Bier was named temporary Chair, but before he yielded the presiding role, the NBPA’s board voted to hire Bier, his consulting firm, and another parking consultant based out of his home address.
Bier had been the one to call for those agenda items, and several others, to be combined into a “consent agenda” for speedy approval.
The $200 fine represents $100 for the repeated omissions from his financial forms, and another $100 for inappropriately serving as temporary chair while the NBPA’s Board of Commissioners voted on these contracts.
The board declined to accept into evidence the video of the meeting Bier inappropriately chaired at their July 24 meeting.
The Ethics Board cited Robert’s Rules of Order, the seminal book of best practices for running public meetings, as it condemned Bier’s controversial move to preside over the entirety of the NBPA’s annual “re-organization” meeting in 2016.
Typically, during a “re-organization,” a temporary chairperson is named, but only for the purpose of electing a new slate of board officers, who are immediately supposed to take over before any other business is done.
“After the election is completed, the [temporary] chair declares the results. Unless a proviso attached to the bylaws proscribes otherwise, the elected officers immediately replace the temporary ones,” reads the resolution approved by the Ethics Board.
“This would have elimated the possibility of a conflict on the part of Mr. Bier with respect to his appointment,” noted the resolution.
Outside of the carefully-worded resolution, the Ethics Board sent mixed signals to Bier with Chairwoman Lauren Carrington stressing that Bier’s violations were “not intentional” and Vice Chair Francis Rella cautioning Bier: “That’s a thing that needs to be corrected so you don’t do it again.”
Bier’s attorney, James Burns of the firm Genova Burns, had argued that his client’s actions were appropriate and in line with the past practices of the NBPA Board of Commissioners.
But the Ethics Board disagreed unanimously about Bier’s conduct, concluding that Bier “should have immediately handed over the gavel” to longtime NBPA Chairman Kevin McTernan as soon as the election of officers had been completed.
“The board finds no merit in the argument that this [alternative] procedure has always been a ‘unwritten policy’ of the NBPA,” wrote the board, concluding Bier’s actions were inappropriate.
One year after Bier’s bad behavior, the NBPA Board deviated from its supposedly long-standing practice, as Bier handed over the control of the meeting—no actual gavel exists—to McTernan after just two minutes and prior to adopting any resolutions.
The Ethics Board resolved that the NBPA policy change represented a “tacit admission that the previous policy created the appearance of a conflict.”
Bier, whose $106,611 annual public pension first sparked interest in his own potential non-compliance with disclosure laws, will likely be able to afford the $200 fine.
In 2016 alone, Bier earned $48,000 as the board’s attorney and his consulting firm was paid an additional $22,850 in NBPA money, according to public records. Another consulting firm that Bier rents office space to, Timothy Haahs & Associates, was paid $46,640 during the same year.
Timothy Haahs & Associates is a major parking company based in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. But for some reason it also operates a small satellite office in Bier’s home on Livingston Avenue.
Bier also admitted he failed to disclose rental income from at least one other tenant, an organization called Downtown New Jersey. The residential address is also the home base for the New Jersey Parking Institute, an organization which Bier has represented since 1978.
In an unusual arrangement, despite being technically “retired,” Bier also simultaneously serves as the top administrator for the Rahway Redevelopment Agency and the Rahway Parking Authority.
Nevertheless, the $200 penalty represents the single largest ethics fine in city history since the LGEL became law in 1991.
Back then, Bier was serving in a dual-role as Acting Executive Director of the NBPA as well as its general counsel, according to his LinkedIn profile.
1991 was also a year of transition at New Brunswick City Hall, the only time that the city’s highest office has changed hands in the last 38 years, as current Mayor James Cahill took over for his cousin John Lynch, Jr.
As we reported, Bier was one of 170 men and women who wrote to the federal Judge that sentenced Lynch on felony charges in 2006, seeking leniency for the political boss.
Bier was far from the only infamous author of those pro-Lynch letters to retain a post in the city government, and expand his influence to new heights in the years that followed the conviction.
Another Lynch ally, William Hamilton, remains on the city payroll in the nebulous role of “special counsel” and he sat in on some of the Ethics Board meetings where the case moved forward, frequently interrupting the proceedings.
During Bier’s brief retirement from government work, he won a personal battle with cancer and went on to assume multiple powerful public positions while continuing to grow his private businesses and make new investments.
It turned out that it wasn’t only his public pension that Bier failed to disclose on the financial forms.
Since 2006, Bier has owned a condominium in North Bay Village, Florida, the scene of his brief retirement in 2008.
“After I recovered, I came back to work. I rented my condo,” Bier told the board.
He has reaped revenue from renting it out since at least 2009, but it took him until 2016 to disclose it on his financial forms.
“Bier did not believe he needed to disclose the out of state property or the rental income,” wrote Bier’s lawyer in a June 26, 2017 response to the complaint against his client.
Though Bier was not required to list the property under the real estate section of the disclosure form, which is only for property in New Jersey, he learned later that he should have been disclosing the rental income he was receiving.
The Florida condominium is just one of several financial revelations that came about as a result of this newspaper probing Bier’s ethics forms.
The condominium first appeared on Bier’s disclosure forms on April 4, 2016, when Bier became the first New Brunswick official to file his ethics form that year.
Under pressure, Bier also revealed previously undisclosed income from a company called Cheap Eats, LLC, and Yellowbrook Properties, a Red Bank-based real estate company. A new Atlanta-based company, WWS, LLC, also appeared on Bier’s financial form beginning this year.
The only other person in city history to be fined for violating the 1991 ethics law is City Councilman Kevin Egan, who was caught by this reporter repeatedly failing to disclose his ownership stake in a rental property on his disclosure forms.
Egan is currently the liason between the Council and the NBPA Board of Commissioners, a board where he once served before winning elected office in 2010.
Thoughout all its troubles, the scandal-ridden NBPA has leaned on Bier, who is known for his parking expertise, and his knowledge of the local political power structure.
But not only was Bier failing to meet his own financial disclosure requirements, he was also failing to inform others at the NBPA of their own obligations, including Commissioner Andrea Eato-White, the other guilty party whose case concluded on September 18.
“We are holding you to a higher standard because of your background and training,” Ethics Board Vice Chairman Reverend Francis Rella told Bier.
“I understand,” Bier responded.
It all started with the article that exposed Bier as “retired,” yet still working several public jobs without disclosing the lucrative public pension he was collecting on his disclosure forms:
…Bier “retired” from all of his public jobs in 2008, including his general legal counsel position at the NBPA, just as the state was adopting legislation to force attorneys like him out of the state’s struggling pension system.
However, he quickly returned to work for the NBPA, and has since amassed a number of other powerful positions in the field.
That move allowed him to join the so-called “$100K club,” by collecting an annual pension of $106,611 on top of at least four public jobs, and seven additional sources of income including lucrative consulting deals with an unknown number of public parking authorities and other government agencies.
The state’s pension system is presently in a crisis, due in part to high payouts being made to certain officials like attorneys, who often behave more like contracted professional service providers, rather than traditional employees entitled to pension benefits.
The income from the pension, however, has consistently been omitted from his financial disclosure forms, in violation of the city’s code of ethics.
The article sparked Bier to contact the Ethics Board in writing the following day, essentially admitting to omitting the pension income on several years worth of forms, and acknowledging that the Ethics Board had the jurisdiction to punish him.
Although our original article noted that, “Bier could be next [to be found guilty of ethics violations] if someone were to file an ethics complaint against him,” no one chose to file a complaint until almost eleven months later when this reporter finally forced the Ethics Board to take up the case.
The Ethics Board and their notorious attorney at the time, Anthony Vignuolo, chose to ignore the information they had received from Bier and initially declined to pursue the case.
“There’s nothing to act on,” Vignuolo falsely told the board at their March 17, 2016 meeting after one board member made public the fact that Bier had written to the board.
A few months later, the Ethics Board went so far as to claim they could only investigate the allegations if a formal complaint filed with the board by a third party, and that Bier’s confession was “evidence of training that’s been given.”
However, the board’s bylaws indicate that the law “permits the board, as a body, to initiate its own investigation as to possible ethics violations” by a majority vote.
But Board Chair Lauren Carrington was clearly not interested in investigating Bier unless someone forced her to.
“[Bier] has admitted to his error. We accept that, and unless there’s a complaint filed, we’re not doing any further action,” said Carrington at the board’s June 14, 2016 meeting, when she and Vignuolo repeatedly shut down discussion about the confession Bier had sent them.
“Please investigate this case, this clear-cut case,” pleaded this reporter at the time, but to no avail.
“Mr. Bier admits to years’ worth of leaving off his pension from the form. He does not say those are the only omissions I made,” noted this reporter at the time. “It is possible that there were other things omitted.”
“If this board were truly interested in policing ethical behavior and ethical violators, you would call Mr. Bier to a meeting here and ask him some questions about these items on his 2016 form, and whether or not they belonged on other forms as well.”
The Ethics Board responded by going dormant and holding no public meetings for the next nine months.
They only re-convened on March 20 of this year, nearly seven weeks after this reporter had filed formal complaints against Bier, Eato-White, and Vignuolo.
As a result of the complaint against Vignuolo, who had failed to file any disclosure statement at all in 2016, he was subsequently sidelined and the Ethics Board retained “special counsel” Peter Jost to represent them in all three matters.
Since 2014, the Ethics Board has handled a total of seven complaints, including six filed by the author of this article. Three of those complaints resulted in guilty verdicts.
Bier is the first and only New Brunswick official to be found guilty of taking an unethical action in public office under the 1991 law, as opposed to merely being faulted for a disclosure violation.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.