Ethics, Redevelopment and Eminent Domain

September 2007 will go down in history as a month of infamy for New Jersey. The headlines in the state’s major newspapers featured the sentencing of former Ocean Township Mayor and Asbury Park Manager Terrence Weldon for accepting $64,000 in bribes from developers; the federal indictment of 11 municipal officials from Passaic, Paterson, Newark, Orange and Pleasantville on bribery charges in a sting operation. Finally, Governor Jon Corzine signed four ethics bills into law, includingA-4326 (sponsored by Michael Panter, D-Monmouth and Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex) which forbids dual office holding, but grandfathered the 19 legislators who currently hold additional posts as long as they are re-elected or until they retire. At the bill signing ceremony, as reported in The Star-Ledger, the governor said, “It’s not the bill I wanted… It gets us down the road."

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Earlier in the year, Harry Pozycki, chairman of the Citizen’s Campaign, gave the governor an “incomplete” in the area of pay-to-play reform, and in particular, for not taking on the culture of corruption. In an op-ed piece in the Asbury Park Press, Pozycki noted that the governor supported the ethics programs developed by Senate President Richard Codey, which were palliative at best, and did not delve far enough into the root causes of corruption. Most importantly, Pozycki said that pay-to-play must be addressed in the context of redevelopment:

Government’s powers in areas designated for redevelopment are nearly unfettered and include the power of eminent domain. It is important that redevelopment decisions are made in the broad public interest and not as a reward to large campaign contributors.

We know, and certainly municipal officials know, that it is illegal to take bribes in payment for municipal action. The issue gets murky, however, when we are dealing with political contributions which are legal, as opposed to bribes, which are not. Pay-to-play has been a fact of life in New Jersey for quite a long time, and this practice hasn’t stopped. Neither is the prevailing attitude of many public officials referenced in the lead editorial in The Star-Ledger on August 29, 2007:

The “go along to get along” mentality plays out in campaign donations from law firms, engineers and other professionals who then get juicy contracts for government work.

It’s why public officials help each other – be the gesture of an appointment to another pension-padding post or a disinclination to pursue ethics charges in the Legislature. They never know when they may need a return favor.

Another variation of “go along to get along” involves officials who get caught snarfing up tax dollars at the public trough. They get indicted – most often by federal authorities – and then plead guilty in return for light sentences. A few months in a federal lockup, a few more in a halfway house and then back to New Jersey and its forgiving ways.

The editorial reflects upon the actions of U.S. District Judge William Walls, who sentenced former Ocean Township mayor and city manager of Asbury Park, Terrence Weldon, to 58 months in prison, despite prosecutors who sought leniency in exchange for Weldon’s cooperation. Judge Walls remained unimpressed with Weldon’s efforts to assist the prosecution and FBI agents. Amazed at New Jersey politicians who are “hell bent on corruption,” Walls said, “Then tell those people not to commit crimes. And tell those agents to work harder…This court is not going to slap people on the wrist to make your job easier.”

Five years elapsed from the time Weldon pleaded guilty to corruption charges until his sentencing due to more than a few postponements. In December, 2006, Monmouth County developer Moshe G. Gohar of Long Branch pleaded guilty for making $50,000 payment to Weldon to gain zoning approvals for a development project in Ocean Township. Gohar conspired with Phillip Konvitz of Neptune and Weldon to change the zoning so that Gohar could build the development with an increased number of houses. Gohar gave the cash to Weldon in 2001 to influence the former mayor to rezone and approve the development of Apple Farms.

Konvitz, a Long Branch developer, was indicted in 2002 for extortion, bribery, mail and wire fraud in Asbury Park with James Condos, a former councilman of Asbury Park. Konvitz allegedly provided Condos with ongoing financial support in exchange for Condos’ votes on the city council for the hiring and firing of the city attorneys and manager, and Asbury Park’s oceanfront redevelopment. Konvitz allegedly facilitated the payment of $50,000 to Terrence Weldon. Konvitz was declared incompetent to stand trial in 2003 and died in 2005. Condos pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Howard M. Schoor, a founding member of Schoor DePalma Engineers, was also indicted and accused of paying bribes to Weldon in order to gain favor and influence in securing contracts for his engineering firm. These are prime examples of the pervasive corruption among public officials in Monmouth County.

Note: This post is an excerpt from the ethics presentation that I will deliver at the International CLE Eminent Domain - Redeveloping New Jersey Conference October 15, 2007, at the Nassau Inn in Princeton.

Written By:Carol W. LaGrasse, P.E. On September 28, 2007 1:56 PM

These convictions are music to my ears. Someone did a lot of work. I took a course from the American Society of Civil Engineers about leadership, which one-quarter dealt with ethics and I was surprised that the one aspect overlooked was bribes. These were the life blood of doing business in NY in my day.

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