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New Brunswick Ethics Board Holds Hearing, Perhaps First in City History

At 7PM in City Hall, Board Will Hear Complaint Filed by NBToday Editor Against Planning Board Attorney Benjamin Bucca
Ben Bucca
Benjamin S. Bucca

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—In a meeting that is open to the public, one of New Brunswick's little-known boards will hold its first official hearing in over two decades, perhaps the first in history.

Tonight's Board of Ethics meeting will be held on the top floor of City Hall, 78 Bayard Street, at 7pm.  The hearing will end at 8:30pm, according to the board.

New Brunswick has had an Ethics Board since at least 1991, when the state enacted the Local Government Ethics Law, though other information suggests it pre-dates it.

The board is charged with providing "a method of assuring the standards of ethical conduct and financial disclosure requirements for city officers and employees are clear, consistent, uniform in their application, and enforceable on a city-wide basis," and to give "advice and information" to city officers and employees on possible conflicts of interest.

Today, the New Brunswick Ethics Board is one of only a handful of municipal boards left in the state, and it hasn't seen action in years.

The last time the board considered a case was 2007, when city housing inspector Steven Scott resigned his position before a hearing could be scheduled for an ethics complaint pending against him.

Scott later pleaded guilty to theft of public money and property, for misleading the federal government in order to receive $19,940 in grant money to pay for renovations to his Reservoir Avenue home.

Since then, the board had not seen a single complaint until last year, when the author of this article and another man each submitted formal complaints against attorneys on the city payroll.

The complaint from NBToday's editor alleged that attorney Benjamin S. Bucca inappropriately represented the city's Planning Board on numerous occasions in which Rutgers University was the applicant, owned the land involved, or had an interest in the development.

Bucca also serves as the head coach of the Rutgers women's tennis team, and has since 2003, creating the conflict of interest.

The ethics complaint stems from a recent application where Rutgers University sold the land in question to a private devleoper for $1, the same one where Bucca cited a Fire Code violation and attempted to get project opponents to leave a meeting this summer, raising the spectre of having police "force the people to leave."

According to open government experts, fundamental rules of the ethics hearing process are not clarified, such as how much the boards can fine those it finds guilty, and whether the money goes to the municipality or the state.

"Theres' something wrong with a system that's been around since 1991... where some of the most fundamental things are still not known about it," said John Paff, a member of the now-disbanded Franklin Township Ethics Board.

Many of the state's municipal ethics boards struggle with how to implement the law, and while ethics complaints are rare, hearings are much less frequent.

"I am told that while ethics complaints have been received and reviewed in the past, none of them actually went to a full hearing," said a spokesperson for Mayor James Cahill, who has been in office since the year the law was enacted.

In response to a public records request, the city provided New Brunswick Today a list of five ethics complaints between the years 2002 and 2014.

In 1986 and 1990, news articles revealed the details of pending ethics complaints against Mayor John Lynch Jr., though it's not immediately clear if there were ever formal hearings held in either case.

Recently, the Ethics Board of Edison Township found Mayor Thomas Lankey guilty of violating the ethics law, but agreed not to fine him. They did not say his name out loud, and did not hold a hearing on the matter.

When this reporter attempted to attend the New Brunswick Ethics Board's advertised meeting of the ethics board on August 14, he was surprised to find City Hall locked and closed for the day.  No meeting was held.

"There wasn't a meeting last night," said Jennifer Bradshaw, a spokesperson for Mayor James Cahill, the following day.

"But the Clerk's Office does make a point of putting up notification on the doors when a meeting doesn't take place as a courtesy, however, last night, that did not happen."

In fact, records show that the Ethics Board stopped having regular meetings in 2013, after receiving just three complaints against city employees in over a decade.  In each case, the complaints were dismissed without a hearing.

However, the city continued to give the impression it was holding four public meetings per year in its official list of board members.

Similarly, the same document also erroneously stated that the Emergency Management Council held monthly public meetings until New Brunwick Today revealed that the some of the council's own members had not heard of it.

Meanwhile, the six-member ethics board quietly stopped having its quarterly public meetings, after having received no ethics complaints for six years.

But that all changed when this reporter submitted an ethics complaint against the longtime attorney for the city's powerful Planning Board in August.  Bucca also represents the city's Rent Control Board, the South Brunswick Planning Board, and the Highland Park Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Since the complaint was filed, Mayor James Cahill replaced two of the Ethics Board's six members, and Bucca recused himself from ongoing hearings on a plan to build 52 apartments on Mine Street, as did another Rutgers employee who sits on the Planning Board.

The ethics board also held three meetings, elected a new reluctant chairperson, hired a "special counsel," and determined the complaint against Bucca was not frivolous and within their jurisdiction.

At the board's most recent meeting, they did not address an ethics complaint filed by Somerset resident Aaron Shabazz regarding two other attorneys on the city payroll, Charly Gayden and Barnett Hoffman.

The board seems to be struggling to remember just how they are supposed to function, and many of its policies are unclear or not followed.

Previously, they relied heavily on their attorney William Hamilton, whose role is also unclear at this point.

Hamilton says he has recused himself from the matter but attended the most recent Ethics Board meeting where he contributed to the board's discussion of the case.

Hamilton, who stepped down as City Attorney after 29 years in office earlier this  month, was Bucca's direct supervisor for 28 years.

Now, the board is more directly represented by another politically-connected attorney, Anthony Vignuolo, hired at the recommendation of Hamilton.  On November 4, the City Council approved a contract not to exceed $4,000 for his services.

Vignuolo is a former New Brunswick judge, prosecutor, and zoning board attorney who was unexpectedly hired for a one-time $7,500 fee to advise the board of education on its transition from mayor-appointed to elected in 2012, and its first-ever election.

As we reported at the time, Vignuolo earned $7,500 in taxpayer money for his work despite several errors made that undermined the fairness of the election and gave an unfair advantage to candidates supported by the city's political machine:

When we first asked Vignuolo about the irregularities, he claimed he had no responsibility to answer to anyone except [Superintendent Richard] Kaplan.

"I was retained by the Superintendent. I don't work for New Brunswick Tomorrow or New Brunswick Today or whatever your company is called," he said.

[BOE attorney George] Hendricks jumped to Vignuolo's defense when his work was criticized by the author of this article at a February 19 board meeting.

"His advice to us was appropriate under the statute," said Hendricks.

He continued, "Mr. Vignuolo, so you know, represents about four or five boards in this district, is a distinguished attorney in school boards and school board elections, and he gave us the best advice that he thought was available and we followed it."

According to his firm's website, Vignuolo currently represents the North Brunswick Board of Education, Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools, and Middlesex County Educational Services Commission.

Of those, only North Brunswick's district holds school board elections.

The Ethics Board in New Brunswick is still figuring out how to approach complaints, and Vignuolo's opinion seems to be different than Hamilton's on some issues.

The author of this article amended the complaint to include more detail on the alleged violation on October 23.  That amended complaint was accepted, but the board declined to allow the complaint to be further amended at their meeting on Monday, January 12.

Vignuolo argued that the first amendment should not have been allowed.

"In my opinion, it should not have happened in that manner," said Vigunolo.

"It should have had an independent analysis by members of this committee this board to detemine whether there was a basis for that amendment and that wasn't done."

Originally, under Hamilton's guidance, the board had scheduled Bucca's ethics hearing for October 28, until both sides pointed out that would not give Bucca enough time to respond in accordance with the board's written procedures.

Bucca produced a point-by-point response to the complaint dated November 23, but the response was not forwarded to this reporter until December 10.

In the response, Bucca admits to much of the allegations in one way or another, downplaying them with excuses.

The 24-page submissions admit Bucca represents that he "was present during those hearings," in reference to nine different hearings in which his other employer, Rutgers University, was the applicant before the board he represented.

"However hearings pursuant to Section 31 are unique.  In those hearings, the Board does not act in a quasi-judicial manner," Bucca wrote.

Section 31 hearings are typically held when the applicant is a public entity such as Rutgers University. Under the law, the Planning Board can either rule that the plans are in sync with the city's Master Plan, or make nonbinding recommendations to the entity.

"Since the hearings are advisory, they are very informal.  I do not recall ever having provided the Board with any legal guidance as to any issues arising in a Section 31 hearing."

Instead, Bucca used his position to inject testimony of his own, often in favor of the developments, and made predictions about the impact of a proposed parking deck, according to audio recording from an October 2012 meeting.

"I've never seen stacking into the parking lots with cars trying to get out," Bucca said after the City Engineer raised concerns about the impact on traffic flow.  "I've never noticed that."

"So I don't think we're going to have that kind of problem, it's not like it's an office hours where everyone is coming at 8:30 and leaving at 5:00. It's not going to be like that," he continued.

Further, Bucca admits in his response to the ethics complaint that the New Brunswick Devleopment Corporation (DEVCO), the notorious city-based non-profit development firm has repeatedly directed donations to the tennis team he coaches.

"For the past twelve years I have organized a fundraiser for the Rutgers Tennis team that occurs on the last Saturday in January," Bucca writes.  "DEVCO has been a consistent contributor to the party," he continues, adding that the proceeds went to "directly to the Rutgers Athletic Fund."

However, the donation was first revealed by a post on the Rutgers Athletics website that said the party "raised $15,000 that will fund the team's spring break trip."

Bucca and the team used the funds to travel to New Orleans for three matches in March 2014, according to other articles on ScarletKnights.com, just as the plans for a development on land owned by a subsidiary of DEVCO were moving forward at the Planning Board.

"If there was anything more to this... it certainly would not have made any sense for me to promote DEVCO's support of the tennis party on the Rutgerst tennis website for everyone to see," wrote Bucca.

"The complainant also fails to demonstrate any facts that I obtained an improper financial benefit from my employment with both Rutgers University and the City of New Brunswick," Bucca wrote.

In 2012, the State Comptroller made claims that Bucca was improperly enrolled in the state pension system, and had been since Jan. 1, 2008.

That matter is still being resolved, but the Division of Pension and Benefits initially sided with the Comptroller's office and determined Bucca should not have been accumulating credit towards a pension for the past seven years.