On January 13, 2016, the New Jersey Local Finance Board, in LFB Complaint No. 13-024, reversed an April 12, 2013 decision by the Franklin Township (Somerset County) Ethics Board that fined a fire commissioner $250 for voting to settle a lawsuit in which he was named as an individual defendant.
The Franklin Township Board found that Commissioner James Wickman, who was named as a defendant in a sexual harassment suit filed in 2009 by former Fire District No. 1 Administrative Aide Deborah Nelson, had violated the Local Government Ethics Law by voting on February 28, 2011 to authorize settlement of the case. Of the five fire commissioners then holding office, one was absent and another abstained from the February 28, 2011 vote, making Wickman’s vote necessary for settlement authorization to have been given at that meeting. In a subsequent meeting, four of the five commissioners, including Wickman, voted to approve a modified settlement agreement.
Disclosure: I served on the Franklin Township Ethics Board during the time Wickman’s ethics complaint was processed. However, because of my relationship with Fire District No. 1 (I served as a volunteer firefighter), I recused myself from all proceedings regarding the complaint against Wickman.
Nelson, in her lawsuit, did not accuse Wickman of active involvement in the harassment. Rather, her lawsuit stated that after having viewed alleged child pornography on a district printer, “[s]he was horrified and emailed Commissioner James Wickman to report the child pornography to him, but he failed to respond to her concerns.” She alleged that Wickman’s failure or refusal to respond constituted his “substantial assistance and encouragement to the unlawful conduct by aiding and abetting the harassment of Plaintiff because of her sex and subjecting her to a sexually hostile work environment.”
In reversing the local ethics board’s decision, the Local Finance Board held that even though Wickman was personally named as a defendant in Nelson’s lawsuit, he didn’t have an active role in the lawsuit’s defense and didn’t face personal financial liability because the Board had provided him with a legal defense and a promise of indemnification. Since Wickman’s personal assets weren’t on the line, the Board believed that he was not tempted “to depart from his sworn public duty.”
The ethics complainant is Jeff Carter, who is Deborah Nelson’s brother. He has forty-five days from the decision’s issuance to file an appeal with the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division.