The Bergen County Democratic Organization (BCDO), which in the past year has seen indictments of its party chairman, counsel and the conviction of a state senator, set up an ethics training program for all county committee members and party officials last week.
The program, however, is not mandatory, which BCDO chairman Michael Kasparian called for when he was first seeking to replace indicted Chairman Joseph Ferriero.
Kasparian made ethics training a major part of his campaign to succeed Ferriero, listing it as the first item of his six plank platform. Although not mandatory, he's encouraging county committee members to go one of two routes: either attend a May 20 ethics training seminar at Bergen Community College, where Gov. Jon Corzine will be a guest, or watch a Power Point presentation online before submitting a test.
"The county committee people are elected officials, so as a private organization, it's not the chairman's intent to make this mandatory," said BCDO counsel Joe Ariyan, who added that he did not believe that Kasparian had the legal authority to force ethics training on committee members, even if he wanted to. "It is encouraged, because the chairman ran on a platform in part on ethics reform, awareness and transparency."
The 26-page Power Point presentation was put together by retired Superior Court Judge Daniel Mecca. It does not delve into exhaustive detail, instead covering the basics of potential conflicts created by business relationships with local entities, fundraising, event attendance, gift acceptance and other prohibited outside activities. It outlines when officials should recuse themselves, and penalties they can face if they do not.
Still, there is nothing in place to force any part officials to take the test, except perhaps a shame factor and the risk of the chairman's displeasure. Nor is there any apparent recourse or penalties for failing the test online.
Ariyan did say that the Web site will "reflect those who have either attended the seminar or completed the course online."
Even though the training is not mandatory, Ariyan said that Kasparian has made a demonstrable commitment to show he's serious about ethics reform.
"He's worked very, very hard to put this program together, which he didn't have to do. The web site, with all the work, has been a considerable expense," he said. "He's gone so far as to reaching out to bring the Governor out to Bergen County to do the seminar."
But the very idea of having ethics training sits well with state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), an ethics crusader who was often at odds with indicted former Chairman Joseph Ferriero.
"I think that the content is less important than the idea of reminding people that, as public officials, which county committee members really are, they need to be reminded that they have to be held to high standards," she said. "By reminding them, they in turn will hold their own elected officials in their own community to those standards."
Bergen County Republican Chairman Bob Yudin, however, trashed the idea that ethics is something that can be taught, and argued that the program is a mere public relations ploy in response to scandals involving the county's ruling Democratic Party.
"If an individual doesn't have the common sense, the intellect or the intelligence to know ethics, you think you can teach it? That's a rhetorical question…. Either you're ethical or you're not."" said Yudin.
Yudin referred to The Record's recent investigative series on cost overruns for the redevelopment of Overpeck Park, from which a politically-connected contractor, Joseph Sanzari, appears to have benefited.
"Anything these characters put up in writing is absolute hypocrisy. It's a joke. And nobody should take any of it seriously until they practice what they preach," said Yudin.