On January 22, 2013, Thomas H. Neff, chairman of the New Jersey Local Finance Board (LFB) notified me that my ethics complaint against Voorhees Township (Camden County) Deputy Mayor Mario DiNatale was dismissed by a 3 to 1 vote. (The LFB has six members, but only four–Neff, Ted Light, James P. Fox and Francis Blee were present at the January 9, 2013 meeting where the vote was taken. Idida Rodriquez and Alan W. Avery were absent. Neff cast the “no” vote. )
I had complained to the LFB on January 17, 2012 after reading a January 11, 2012 Courier Post article entitled “Abuse of badges may cost them badges” by Jeremy Rosen. The article reported that Berlin Township (Camden County) police officer Wayne Bonfiglio had stopped Deputy Mayor DiNatale on January 5, 2012 for having a rejected red inspection sticker and improperly tinted windows on his vehicle.
According to a January 5, 2012 e-mail that Bonfiglio had sent to Voorhees Police Chief Keith Hummel, when he approached DiNatale’s car, DiNatale held a police badge out the driver’s side window. Bonfiglio, who “could not believe that a police officer would openly display his badge on a car stop in front of so many witnesses” asked DiNatale if he was a police officer. According to Bonfiglio, DiNatale “simply replied, ‘Voorhees Township Police.'”
Bonfiglio, who knew all the Voorhees police but didn’t recognized DiNatale, challenged DiNatale’s claim that he was a police officer. At that point, DiNatale explained that he was the Voorhees Deputy Mayor and had received a a police badge because served in a “liaison role” as the Township Committee’s public safety director.
According to Bonfiglio, he didn’t issue DiNatale any summonses “out of respect for [Chief Hummel]. Rather, he told DiNatale to remove the tint from his windows and get his vehicle inspected. He also opted to send his e-mail to Voorhees Police Chief Hummel.
After reading the article, I concluded that DiNatale’s actions constituted a violation of N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.5(c), which states: “No local government officer or employee shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for himself or others.” I felt, and still feel, that flashing a police badge to get yourself out of a ticket falls squarely into the category of using one’s official position to secure an unwarranted privilege or advantage.
Yet, the LFB decided to give DiNatale a pass because he had sent an e-mail to Berlin Township Police Chief Joseph Jackson on January 16, 2012 (after the article was published in the Courier Post) “requesting that the appropriate tickets be issued to [him].” DiNatale’s magnanimous gesture (i.e. deigning to accept a traffic summons, just like us common folk), in the LFB’s eyes, warranted mercy.
After receiving the LFB’s dismissal letter, I submitted an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to Berlin Township for the e-mails back and forth between DiNatale and Berlin Police Chief Jackson, as well as copies of the traffic tickets that were ultimately issued to DiNatale. In response, I was given a copy of DiNatale’s e-mail to Jackson and was told that no summonses against DiNatale were on file. I conclude from this that while DiNatale may have asked to be ticketed, he didn’t actually receive any tickets.
So, the way I understand the LFB’s view of the ethics law, if a public official is caught trying to use his or her official position to beat a traffic ticket, he or she will be excused from an ethics violation provided that he or she, after being caught, contritely asks for the ticket to be issued. It matters not, however, whether any tickets are actually issued against the public official. Rather, it’s the thought that counts.
My ethics complaint, Neff’s dismissal letter, the Courier Post article, my OPRA request to Berlin and Berlin’s response are all on-line here.