Assembly candidate files suit against state ethics commission

A candidate for Assembly in the 40th Legislative District has filed a lawsuit against a state ethics commission over what he says was the mishandling of a complaint he filed against Assemblyman Scott Rumana.

In a complaint filed in Superior Court, Democrat Bill Brennan said Alan Rosenthal, chairman of the Joint Legislative Commission on Ethical Standards, should have been removed from the committee while a separate allegation by Brennan that Rosenthal was biased was heard by the committee and voted on.

Brennan had asked Rosenthal to recuse himself from voting on the complaint against Rumana because he said comments Rosenthal made in support of the assemblyman  made him unable to cast an impartial vote. 

“Even though the Committee has not yet conducted any fact finding, Chairman Rosenthal has expressed both on the record in Committee proceedings and to the media (i) his reluctance to abide by the statutory prohibition against appearances of impropriety in general, as well as (ii) his definitive opinion that Rumana has done nothing wrong.  The Chairman’s open and notorious hostility toward the governing statute and his predisposed conclusion regarding Rumana’s compliance therewith would render the Chairman’s continued participation in this matter unduly prejudicial to the public.”

According to the complaint, Rosenthal should have been replaced with another member by Sen. President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and the committee including the new member should have voted on his allegation against Rosenthal.

Brennan and Wayne Township resident Rob Burke sent a letter to the two lawmakers asking them to replace Rosenthal, but said they were never answered.

Instead, what the two men received was a letter from Office of Legislative Services Executive Director Albert Porroni informing them that “after consultation with counsel, Chairman Rosenthal has decided not to recuse himself.”

Rosenthal remained on the commission and ultimately voted to dismiss Brennan’s complaint against Rumana.
Reached Thursday, Rosenthal said the complaint has no merit.

“We’re just starting to process it and I am very confident that we went through the right procedures in the right way and there isn’t any merit to the complaint,” he said.

Through a spokesman, Sweeney declined to comment on the issue. Oliver could not be reached for comment.

The complaint also alleges that in discussing the request in closed session the commission violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, which sets out specific criteria for a closed session.   A third count alleges that by allowing Judge Daniel Mecca, a member of the committee, to listen to the meeting and vote by phone, the commission violated its operating statute, which Brennan said requires members to appear in person.

Both Rosenthal and Mecca voted in favor of dismissing Brennan’s complaint and he said in light of the mishandling of his allegation against Rosenthal and Mecca’s participation by phone, both votes should be disqualified.  If that happens, the vote would revert to 3 to 2 in favor of charging Rumana.  The committee would then hear testimony and ultimately take another up or down vote on the charges.

“From a legal perspective they are boxed in,” Brennan said. “They are stuck with the result of their conduct.”

In March 2010, Brennan filed a complaint against Rumana charging that the assemblyman violated the ethics code governing legislators when he attempted to appear before the state Board of Public Utilities to advocate on behalf of a non-profit of which he was the chairman.

Rumana had been working to bring an energy co-generation plant to Wayne Township where he had served as mayor. Brennan alleged that through his actions, Rumana was responsible for the loss of state grant money intended to pay for solar panels on township buildings.

For his part, Brennan said given what he calls the unlawful conduct of the committee, it’s no wonder Rumana was cleared.

“This explains to me why Rosenthal sees nothing wrong with what Rumana did,” he said.  “Rosenthal himself does not follow rules and laws.”