New Jersey’s Local Government Ethics Law (LGEL) requires elected and certain appointed local government officials to annually disclose, on a Financial Disclosure Statement (FDS), all sources of income in excess of $2,000 for both themselves and their household relatives. The reason for this is to help the public detect impermissible conflicts of interest such as a Zoning Board member voting to approve her employer’s application for a variance. If the public has no way of informing itself that the Zoning Board member is employed by the variance applicant, the conflict of interest is much less likely to be detected.
In 2018 I discovered that the majority of the Borough Council in Woodlynne (Camden County), as well as several members of the Planning Board, simply wrote “none” in response to the question on their 2017 FDS forms that asked for their and their families’ income sources. In other words, these officials expected the public to believe that neither they, many of whom own their homes, nor family members who live in their households have sources of income in excess of $2,000 per year. An Internet search on two of the officials, who appear to be a married couple, reveals that the annual property tax on their home is over $4,200, which makes their joint claim of having no source of family income greater than $2,000 seem very implausible.
So, on February 12, 2018, I filed a complaint with the Local Finance Board (LFB), the state agency that normally enforces the LGEL, against five elected Woodlynne Borough Council members and four of the Borough’s Planning Board members, all of whom simply answered “none” to the question that sought their families’ income sources. (Six of those officials who still hold office–including the Mayor–still list “none” on their 2020 FDS forms.)
While I could not prove that these officials actually did have sources of income of more than $2,000 (I don’t know these people or have any way of determining where they are employed), I thought that the unbelievability of their assertions would be enough to trigger an investigation by the LFB into whether they violated the LGEL’s income disclosure requirements.
After reviewing my complaint for nearly three years, the LFB wrote in a November 19, 2020 letter that despite the unlikelihood of these officials’ claims, “the mere fact that a local government officer does not list any source of income, earned or unearned, exceeding $2,000 for the reporting year does not in itself violate the LGEL.” Rather, LFB Chair Melanie R. Walter wrote, “a violation would arise only if there was in fact a specific source of income the individual or his or her immediate family received but did not disclose” and that “the Board requests that you [i.e. me, John Paff] identify a specific source or sources of income that the local government officer is alleged to have failed to disclose on his FDS on these and any future LGEL complaints of this nature.” So, local officials can implausibly answer “none” to the question regarding income sources and the LFB won’t take action unless the citizen complainant can produce evidence that the answer is untruthful.
Walter provided me with a 90-day period within which I can supplement my complaint by identifying specific income sources for the following nine officials during 2016 and 2017:
- Joseph Chukwueke, Council Member (now mayor)
- Sharon Earley, Council Member
- Alphonso Thomas, Council Member
- Gwendolyn Torres, Council Member
- William Valle, Council Member
- Amy Earley, Planning Board Member
- Robert Earley, Planning Board Member
- Noble Kelly, Planning Board Member
- Devy D. Robinson, Planning Board Member
I ask that readers in and around Woodlynne Borough identify any income sources for these nine officials, send that information to me at paff (at) pobox.com and I will relay that information to the LFB while not identifying my sources.
UPDATE 12/08/2020: I submitted to the LFB a “Landlord Registration Statement” that Mayor Chukwueke filed for a property he owns at 1401 Park Blvd, Camden and argued that he ought to have listed the rental income received from that property on his FDS.
UPDATE 11/16/2021: I could not prove that any of the above-named officials made more than $2,000 within the 90-day period. Accordingly, the complaints against them were dismissed. Regarding Mayor Chukwueke’s rental property, the LFB held that “although [he] had filed a landlord registration statement . . . in 2002 . . . there is no evidence that [he] had a tenant or received rental income from the occupancy of that property in years 2017 or 2018.” The dismissal letters all came in one envelope and are on-line here in the order listed above.