Sierra Club claims conflict in DEP official serving as bank chairman

TRENTON – The appointment of a Department of Environmental Protection official to the board chairmanship of a bank has drawn conflict of interest accusations from the N.J. Sierra Club.

Michele Siekerka, who oversees the Office of Economic Growth and Green Energy in DEP, was recently named board chair of Robbinsville-based Roma Bank, whose president is former state Sen. Peter Inverso. The state chapter of the Sierra Club stated in a release that it believes this is a conflict.

“We are concerned that as a chairman of the board of a bank part of that function is to lobby to weaken environmental protections to help the bank’s clients who are developers and builders,” Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel said.

“As an assistant commissioner of the DEP her job is to work to enforce environmental laws. This is worse than the fox guarding the hen house, this is the fox in charge of the hen house and certifying the hen house is safe,” Tittel said.

The Sierra Club has often taken issue with the Office of Economic Growth itself.

“The Office is a liaison to the Business Action Center in the Secretary of State Office, which works as a clearing house for business interests to weaken environmental regulations,” Tittel charged.

“This office violates the core mission of DEP, which is to protect the environment and the public health and safety, and their actions violate the law that set up the DEP.”

However, DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese defended Siekerka and completely disagreed with the Sierra Club’s assertion.

“Her work will lead to green jobs,’’ Ragonese said. “She is well qualified to do that and there is no conflict whatsoever.  It’s disappointing to hear Mr. Tittel make these comments. This is a great honor for her.’’

Calling Siekerka an “extremely professional person,’’ Ragonese said that Siekerka made sure before accepting the board chairmanship that there would be no conflict.

“Before she did that she made sure she thoroughly had this reviewed by the state ethics team. She was completely cleared to do this. She spends none of her work time on bank business. She doesn’t use DEP phones or facilities for bank business. Anything she does is after-hours.’’

Siekerka declined to comment on the Sierra Club statements.

Sierra Club claims conflict in DEP official serving as bank chairman