Sussex County needs an Ethics Committee

For more than a month Sussex County residents have been reading a slowly unraveling serial about corruption in their county.  Millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake.  Corporations with hidden relationships with people in power.  Shadow entities through which government contracts flow.  It reads like a mystery novel.

It's all there, along with the highly respected college "trustee" and bigwig in the Sussex County Republican Party who swore he didn't know that his vote had anything to do with sending taxpayers' money to a company that paid him, then swore that he didn't take money from that company, then admitted that he did take money, then offered no plausible explanation on why he hadn't reported his relationship on state ethics forms as required by law.  Why should he? 

In Sussex County there are those elected officials who scoff at the law.  The same Sussex County GOP that harbored the now disgraced former Sussex County Community College Trustee (and former County Freeholder) Glen Vetrano endorsed Freeholder Phil Crabb for re-election despite him operating a campaign account in secret for over four years , while he refused to follow state ethics law and file campaign finance reports.

In some counties, a wanton screw-up like Crabb would have been quietly asked to step aside.  Examples abound in other parts of the state.  Not in Sussex County.  Wantonly, purposefully, breaking the ethics rules doesn't matter.  Crabb's reward for breaking the law year in and year out was a fundraiser held in his honor at the wine cellar of the all-too-powerful Mulvihill corporate clan.

We mention Freeholder Crabb because he brought his unethical behavior to mind when he was quoted in a New Jersey Herald column last week discussing open government and transparency for which he expressed support for same, providing that it was at the "appropriate" level.  We can only suppose that based on his actions Freeholder Crabb would like to see campaign reporting laws rolled back to the pre-Watergate era.  By his actions Crabb has stated loud and clear what he thinks is "appropriate" and that is that the voting and taxpaying public has no right to know who is paying for an elected official's campaign and about what that official is spending the money he collects on.

The truth is that the ethics laws we have now are too weak.  The penalties are such that public officials like former Freeholder Vetrano and Freeholder Crabb feel safe ignoring them.  They laugh at the ethics laws enacted to protect the taxpaying public. 

The current ethics laws have too many loopholes.  For example, a Freeholder could set up a consulting business and accept money from vendors who do business with the county or powerful interests with matters before the county.  Those clients would not be listed on the annual ethics filings required, only the name of the consulting business would be listed.  It would be up to the "good faith" of the elected official to voluntarily disclose his conflict.

Sussex County is losing population and along with it, economic activity.  There is less and less private money and government is the only growth industry.  The result is that more and more vendors have joined the chase after government contracts.  A few years ago they resorted to forming a vendors' PAC to get around state pay-to-play laws.  The latest has been to create formal or informal relationships with high-ranking office holders or party bigwigs to use politics to secure contracts.  This subverts the peoples' business.  The best for the least ("doing more with less") should be the only consideration when considering a contract, not whose buddy is on whose payroll.

It is time for the taxpaying voters of Sussex County to get involved.  If the politicians will not police themselves then we, the people, must do it for them.


For training purposes, here is the first part of a four-part series on ethics and leadership: