Friday
Feb202015

How it was sold to the Freeholders

In 2011, the Sussex County Board of Chosen Freeholder was composed of the following members:  Freeholder Director Rich Zeoli, Deputy Director Sue Zellman, and Freeholder members Phil Crabb, Rich Vohden, and Parker Space.  Vohden and Space were new to the  Board.  On November 14, 2011, the Freeholder Board voted unanimously to take the solar deal offered by SunLight  General.  How did it happen? 

Watchdog has uncovered the document used to sell the deal to the Freeholders, but first, let's look at the committee that was formed to sell the solar scheme.  It was called the Sussex County Evaluation Team and it was composed of the following people/organizations:

- John Eskilson Sussex County Administrator

- Dennis McConnell, Sussex County Attorney

- Bernard Re, Sussex County Treasurer

- Steve Pearlman, a lawyer with Inglesino, Pearlman, Wyciskala & Taylor

- Deb Verderame, a lawyer with Inglesino, Pearlman, Wyciskala & Taylor

- Gerry Genna, Birdsall Services Group

- Tom Brys, Birdsall Services Group

- Douglas Bacher, NW Financial Group

- Heather Litzebauer, NW Financial Group

- Steven Gabel, Gabel Associates

- Richard Preiss, Gabel Associates

- Cadence Bowden, Gabel Associates

This is the committee that recommended to the Freeholder Board that they agree to the solar scheme.  These are the promises they made to the Board: 

"The SunLight/MasTec team possesses high quality management, installation capabilities, and sound solar development experience.  In addition, the SunLight/MasTec proposal provides Sussex benefits in the following key areas:

- It provides substantial direct energy cost savings;

- It provides the Local Units the potential for additional savings through the sharing of revenues from the sale of Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs) and other environmental benefits;

- Due to SunLight/MasTec's proposed capital investment, which reduces the required size of the Authority bonds, it provides a strong level of protection for Sussex from financial risk;

- It provided additional financial protection for Sussex in the form of a debt service reserve fund; and,

- It includes a restoration security providing for additional Local Unit protection at the end of contract."

The entire process was open to public bid, but only one bidder showed up.  Another showed up late and was disqualified.  Some wanted to redo the bid, but that suggestion was brushed aside.  Only one bidder?

Friday
Feb202015

Serious Allegations of Wrongdoing

SunLight General stopped paying Power Partners MasTec, so MasTec sued SunLight.  What they alleged in federal court forms the basis of Freeholder Gail Phoebus' and Assemblyman Parker Space's a request to the Securities and Exchange Commission, U.S. Department of Justice, and the N.J. Office of the Attorney General to review the allegations set forth in MasTec v. SunLight.  The allegations are serious and deeply troubling:

- That the SunLight Entities "have drawn on the Public Bond Funds and diverted such funds for non-trust purposes in violation of the New Jersey Trust Fund Statute."

- That the SunLight Entities have admitted that "millions of dollars of Public Bond Funds" have been used to "make lease payments" and to "fund the SunLight Entities' required contributions under the Program Documents, and to pay the 'soft' costs (including attorneys' fees) of the Authorities and the SunLight Entities."

- That "the SunLight Entities owe Power Partners millions of dollars as a direct beneficiary under the New Jersey Trust Fund Statute and there are no longer sufficient funds in the Public Bond Funds to pay Power Partners and to complete the projects."

- That the SunLight Entities "participated in an additional scheme to draw down over $6.3 million in Public Bond Funds and misdirected more than $2.7 million of such funds for non-trust purposes."

- That SunLight General Capital and its subsidiaries were formed "with virtually no assets, such that they were undercapitalized at the time of formation."

- That those who controlled the SunLight Entities treated corporate assets as "their personal piggy banks, repeatedly transferring assets from one entity to the next for the purpose of ensuring that there would be insufficient assets in each entity to satisfy its obligations to Power Partners."

- That "the corporate form of the SunLight Entities was used to commit conversion, make fraudulent transfers, and other improper acts."

SunLight's attorney told the media that "context matters and it is important to recognize that MasTec's statements were made in the context of a commercial dispute".  In fact, this so-called "commercial dispute" is a lawsuit filed in United States District Court.  Do attorneys file baseless lies in federal court?  Maybe attorneys do, and maybe they also lie to freeholder boards.  That is why we need an investigation run by federal officers.  Lie to them and you go to jail.

 

Thursday
Feb122015

Marie Bilik: Former Mayor, Lobbyist, Assembly candidate

After a career spent working for state and national advocacy groups, Marie Bilik of Green Township is running for Assembly in District 24.  She faces newcomer Nathan Orr of Branchville and Freeholder Gail Phoebus in the June 2nd Republican Primary.

According to newspaper reports, Ms. Bilik resides and works in Virginia and travels to New Jersey for the weekends.  She is registered to vote in New Jersey. 

Ms. Bilik served on the school board and on the township committee.  She was Mayor of Green Township until she resigned suddenly in 1993, citing "personal reasons".  She is a longtime employee of the New Jersey School Boards Association and served as that group's executive director before landing her current position with the National School Boards Association.  These groups lobby the state legislature and Congress, respectively.  They oppose school privatization as well as school vouchers.

In a recent interview with Star-Ledger affiliate NJ.com, Ms. Bilik made it clear that she was not a political conservative, telling the reporter that she "will be emphasizing education issues in her campaign," and that she "supports the Common Core program" -- a controversial program opposed by most of the Republican presidential candidates for 2016.  Common Core has been criticized by both the right and the left for its perceived attempt to impose a "one-size-fits-all" federal curriculum and to limit local control over schools.  It is often opposed by conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, while it is supported by liberal teachers' unions like the NEA.

Ms. Bilik also stressed that  she's "not looking to be known as the most conservative in the race," adding, "I want to be known as a reasonable individual, but someone who won't raise taxes."

The former mayor could be a strong candidate.  Her campaign team is being led by county lobbyist Wendy Molnar, whose clients include Concord Engineering.

Tuesday
Feb102015

Nathan Orr, Republican candidate for Assembly

Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose's announcement last month that she was taking a job with Franklin Borough and not running for re-election, has created a three-way contest in the Republican primary for her seat.  This week we will look at each declared candidate in that primary.

We start with the youngest, least experienced, but freshest candidate in the race, Nathan C. Orr of Branchville.

This young, self-avowed conservative is an admirer of Senator Rand Paul.  He recently turned 23 and is a graduate of Centenary College in Warren County, where he majored in criminal justice.  He is currently working as an EMT and hopes to practice law.  He also volunteers with the Blue Ridge Rescue Squad.

Mr. Orr told NJ.com that his campaign will focus on "wasteful spending" and that he would like to see the state's budget focus on core issues like infrastructure, education, and public safety. In his interview with NJ.com, a website associated with the Star-Ledger newspaper, Mr. Orr told the reporter that he intends to "run as an independent if he loses the primary."  This isn't allowed under New Jersey law.  A candidate gets just one bite at the apple.

Mr. Orr's father served as a Branchville councilman.  Nathan Orr received a single write-in vote for Freeholder in November2012.

The form his campaign will take is anyone's guess at this point.  Last year Ron Bassani managed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot in the Republican primary for Freeholder.  He raised very little money and did minimal campaigning.  Yet he was able to capture nearly 40 percent of the vote against incumbent Phil Crabb, despite Mr. Crabb running a campaign that included several paid direct mail pieces, paid radio advertising, and robo-calls. 

Freeholder Crabb's campaign had the support of the Sussex County GOP establishment and was managed by former Freeholder Rich Zeoli and county lobbyist Wendy Molner.  But even with all this money and support, Freeholder Crabb was only able to make it a 60-40 race.  So Mr. Orr has reason to be optimistic.

 

Friday
Feb062015

Outside Employment at the Legislature: Putting things in Perspective

The New Jersey Herald has been making an issue over Republican Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose doing a full-time job for Franklin Township, while handling her responsibilities as an elected member of the Legislature.   In fact, the Legislature is a part-time job and most legislators hold some other form of full-time employment.

Recently, two of McHose's Democrat colleagues were hired.  Democrat Assemblyman John Burzichelli got a $100,000-a-year job at the Gloucester County Improvement Authority, while Democrat Assemblywoman Linda Stender picked up a $90,000-per-year position at the Union County Improvement Authority.  For Burzichelli, who also owns a full-time business, it's his third job.  And unlike Republican McHose, Democrats Burzichelli and Stender intend to keep both jobs.  Read the NJ.com stories here for yourself:

http://www.nj.com/gloucester-county/index.ssf/2015/02/assemblyman_john_burzichelli_nets_100k_salary_at_n.html

http://www.nj.com/union/index.ssf/2015/02/assemblywoman_stender_get_90000-a-year_job_at_unio.html#incart_river

One Democrat whose outside employment does interfere with his job as a legislator is Senate President Steve Sweeney.  For several years Sweeney, who controls every piece of legislation that comes to the Senate for a vote, has been paid by his union for lobbying activities.  Sweeney is paid about $200,000 a year by the union, in addition to his $65,000 salary as senator and senate president.

This came to light from an examination of mandatory filings his union has made with the United States Labor Department. The Department of Labor requires public disclosure by labor unions of how union dues are spent.  These disclosures list union employees, their salaries and allowances.  The disclosure also includes the allocation of time by union officers and employees estimating the amount of time spent on various activities such as organizing or administration.  One of the purposes of this disclosure is to show how much the union has spent on its core activities: collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment.  Non-members working in a union environment are obligated to pay dues, but only to support these core activities.

According to disclosure filings by the International, Sweeney spends a considerable amount of his time as a union official on activities described as “Political Activities and Lobbying.” (LM-2, Schedule 12, Disbursements to Employees, Line I, Schedule 16).

As Senate President, Steve Sweeney is paid $49,000 per year, plus an “allowance equal to 1/3 his compensation” ($16,333) for a total of $65,333.

Steve Sweeney is also an official with the Iron Workers union.  As a general organizer paid through the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Union, AFL-CIO, Sweeney received a base salary of $165,264 in 2012.  In addition to his base salary, Sweeney also received compensation in the form of allowances and disbursements for expenses. His total compensation through the International in 2012 was $206,092.

In addition, Sweeney received allowances of $21,351 as President of Iron Workers District Council of Philadelphia and Vicinity. In 2012, Sweeney's total compensation through the Iron Workers was $227,443.

New Jersey state law does not appear to allow legislators to simultaneously serve as lobbyists.

Questions concerning Senator Sweeney’s political activity and lobbying for the Iron Workers union become a more serious matter when the amount of time allocated to these activities is noted.  Calculating the value of that allocation as a portion of Sweeney’s compensation adds further emphasis. 

Sweeney spent 30% of his union effort in 2012 on political activity and lobbying.  In 2011 and 2010, the amount was 38%.  In 2009, the amount was 34%.  There is no indication of the actual amount of time Sweeney devoted to these activities, only the proportion of the whole.

Placing dollar amounts on Sweeney’s activity helps put matter into an easily understandable form.  In 2012, Sweeney’s gross pay was $165,264, and his total compensation was $227,442.  In simple terms, Sweeney was paid $49,579 of his gross, or $68.233 of his total compensation, to engage in political activity and lobbying for the union.  In 2011, Sweeney was paid $62,141 of his total compensation for political activity and lobbying.  In 2010, $58,377, and in 2009, $56,669.

For readers of the Herald, the question becomes why is this story not being placed in the context of what other legislators are doing?