HILLSBOROUGH: Committee members, township administrator the subjects of two ethics complaints

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Andrew Martins, Managing Editor
A pair of ethics complaints filed by a group of Hillsborough residents are making the claim that three township officials have used their positions in government for personal and financial gain.
Filed with the Hillsborough Ethics Standards Board on Oct. 17, the two complaints point to actions committed by Committeewoman Gloria McCauley, Business Administrator Anthony Ferrera and Committeeman Gregory Burchette. A number of signatories say all three individuals are in violation of state ethics laws.
“The township committee is either very ill-informed on what the law is that governs their responsibilities, or they’re just brazenly disregarding it,” Roger Koch, one of the individuals who signed the complaint, said.
According to the first complaint, McCauley, who works as a realtor during the day, sold Ferrera’s house and accepted a commission on the sale. Since McCauley is “(Ferrera’s) employer and despite having recently given him a 5.45 percent raise,” the complaint contests those actions violate aspects of N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.5, which prohibits elected officials from using their positions to benefit themselves personally.
Under the aforementioned statute, “no local government officer or employee or member of his immediate family shall have an interest in a business organization or engage in business transaction, or professional activity, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest.”
For Koch and the other residents who signed the complaint, the fact that Ferrera’s raise is higher than the roughly two percent pay increase most other township employees received and the 1.75 percent average increase that members of the police department received smacks of preferential treatment.
“They’re pretty in the open here exchanging favors,” Koch said.
Though neither Ferrera nor McCauley opted to comment on the complaint, Township Attorney William Willard released a statement describing the complaint as a politically motivated attack.
“The ethics complaint against Committeewoman McCauley and Administrator Ferrera is nothing more than an unsubstantiated partisan attack launched just prior to the upcoming election for the sole purpose of influencing voters,” Willard wrote. “This partisan attack seeks to unfairly impugn the character and integrity of Committeewoman McCauley and Administrator Ferrera for political gain.”
McCauley is running to retain her seat on the township committee this November. She is running with fellow incumbent Republican Doug Tomson and faces competition from Democrats Harry Burke and Jane Staats.
Willard said both Ferrera and McCauley “categorically deny the insinuations and allegations” found in the complaint and that the administrator’s raise had nothing to do with the sale of his home.
“The fact of the matter is each year the township evaluates and adjusts the annual salaries of employees as appropriate,” he said. “The township followed this same procedure for 2017, culminating in the adoption of a resolution establishing the annual salaries and wages of 34 of its municipal employees…the annual salary of Administrator Ferrera was included in the resolution and he did receive a salary adjustment based on his service to the township as administrator, deputy clerk, ADA director and deputy zoning officer.”
In the second complaint, residents charge that Burchette should not have been involved in the decision to privatize the township’s EMS capacities by partnering with Robert Wood Johnson, since the committeeman’s automotive repair business regularly maintains the EMS vehicles used by Somerset Medical Center, which has since been acquired by RWJ.
According to the complaint, Burchette “played a key role in the decision to hire Fitch and Associates to conduct a study of the town’s EMS, knowing that this company was also employed and being paid by RWJ EMS to provide management consulting services.”
Once the report was completed, the complaint states that Fitch and Associates suggested moves that would make its client, Robert Wood Johnson, the only potential bidder to satisfy the township’s needs.
“It is alleged that Committeeman Burchette’s business relationship with RWJ and its predecessor organization Somerset Medical Center, in which his Bridgewater Motor Works business serviced ambulances and staff vehicles, plus the money he was being paid by RWJ to service its non-EMS vehicles, created an opportunity for personal enrichment by improper use of his public office,” the complaint alleges.
“This really smells like there’s something wrong here – hiring a company to give an independent opinion, but they’re already being paid by Robert Wood Johnson,” Koch said.
Just as with the McCauley/Ferrera complaint, Willard said the claims against Burchette were unfounded, stating that those allegations are “the subject of litigation in the Somerset County Superior Court.”
“A Superior Court judge, after full briefing and argument, found the allegations lacked sufficient merit to warrant granting injunctive relief,” the attorney said. “That decision was appealed to the Appellate Division which reached the same conclusion.”
Willard said Burchette kept from running afoul of ethics standards by not participating in the township’s request for proposals, the evaluations of the proposal from the Robert Wood Johnson Health Network or the decision to award the contract to RWJ. The committeeman also did not attend the meeting where the other four members of the committee voted unanimously in favor of the decision.
The township attorney also said that Burchette’s business stopped servicing the Somerset Medical Center’s ambulances when RWJ took over the hospital.
“Committeeman Burchette did not receive any pecuniary benefit from the township’s award of a contract to Robert Wood Johnson Health Network,” Willard said. “Consequently, Committeeman Burchette actually lost revenue when Robert Wood Johnson Health Network took over Somerset Medical Center. There was no violation of the Local Government Ethics Law and the Ethics Complaint is without merit.”