Is there a case against Dennis McConnell?
Well, for one thing, he's been at the public trough for a very long time. He's pushing three decades of pocketing taxpayers' money and his law firm has made millions. And that isn't the only thing. A few years ago he talked the Freeholders into making him an employee -- ostensibly to save money -- but that also put him in line for a very nice pension.
Quoting County Administrator John Eskilson, the Sparta Independent and the Advertiser News report that McConnell receives a salary of $195,649 plus benefits. His law firm, according to Eskilson, receives an additional $88,358 from the county "on litigation matters".
According to the Asbury Park Press, which keeps a record of these things, Dennis McConnell's base salary is $189,256 per year and he is enrolled in the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). You can calculate what he will continue to receive from the taxpayers by visiting the state webpage below:
None of this should surprise anyone. In every county in New Jersey, whether run by Republicans or Democrats, there is always a cabal who takes care of each other on the taxpayers' dime. We would like to see a little more turnover, a new set of eyes once in a while, but it is what it is.
The problem with Dennis McConnell is that he's been making a lot of eyebrow raising calls for a very long time. Let's pick a random year -- 1989 for example -- and see what Sussex County Counsel Dennis McConnell was up to way back then.
In 1989, George Bush Sr. was America's brand new President. Matt Damon was eligible to vote for the first time. The Soviet Union still existed. Barack Obama was a student at Harvard Law School. Less than 15% of American households had a personal computer. And 3 million people in the U.S. owned a cell phone (today it is more than 300 million) and they weighed a couple pounds. Oh yeah, Sussex County had the same legal counsel it has today.
In 1989, County Counsel Dennis McConnell told the Freeholder Board that the taxpayers had to eat a $648,078 loan the county had made to another agency because apparently the professionals at the county had forgotten about it. The Board, led by Freeholder Vic Marotta, said no way. Marotta noted that, with interest, the agency owed the county $2 million, and he wanted to collect.
In 1989, the Star-Ledger and the Herald reported that county officials had met with a Democrat candidate for Sheriff who was also a county employee. One of those officials was the County Counsel, Dennis McConnell. They advised this candidate that he no longer had a job. That led to the indictment of another one of those officials, the incumbent Sheriff at the time. He was charged with exercising improper influence for threatening to fire the county employee if he ran for sheriff, and was accused of "official misconduct, criminal coercion and threats and other improper influence in official and political matters in a three-count indictment handed up by a state grand jury in Trenton."
The New Jersey Attorney General said that the county employee's "constitutional right to run for public office" was threatened, adding that "any attempt to thwart or undermine an election or political candidacy is a grievous offense against the state."
And again in 1989, County Counsel Dennis McConnell advised the Freeholder Board to invalidate the employment contract of 68 county workers simply because the county agency that had negotiated the contract had been merged into another department during a restructuring of county government.
Pick any year and you will find a lot of head-scratchers like these.
We believe that the case against lawyer Dennis McConnell rests on his support for and justification of a "non-disparagement" clause, a gag-order really, as part of the "settlement" agreement Sussex County negotiated in order to borrow more taxpayers' money to bail out the failed solar project. The Herald described it this way: "Under the settlement's non-disparagement clause, the county freeholders are barred from voicing public criticisms of the professionals, consultants and other entities that were involved in the original solar project and in the recently concluded settlement negotiations."
And McConnell is quoted by the Herald as clearly defending the public gagging of everyone in the know, calling the non-disparagement clause "a material part of that binding agreement approved by them (the Freeholders) in their official capacities for the benefit of the citizens of Sussex County."
We believe that any lawyer who supports and justifies such a thing simply doesn't understand or respect the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of these United States. We're sorry, but to us it borders on being un-American.
It is bad enough that money has corrupted the political system and has molded the politicians of both parties into pawns of special interests. It is bad enough that Wall Street can wreck the American economy and then keep their bonuses with bail out money from working taxpayers. It is bad enough that banks can do whatever they want to do -- from illegal foreclosures to laundering the money of drug cartels -- and never go to jail for it.
But to try to set a precedent on behalf of a group of scumbag Wall Street operators like SunLight General -- to try to tell the people and their elected officials that they cannot even complain about it -- that simply goes too far. It's like something some Fascist would think up.
And for that reason we think that the County Counsel should do the honorable thing and resign.
One of our reader's posted this important commentary on the above story:
You neglected to mention that Mr. McConnell appointed his law partner Bob Campbell to the post of County Adjuster which is a salaried position. Mr. Campbell also is the stand-in for McConnell at Freeholder meetings if he is unable to attend. Someone should look into theses conflicts of interest.
One of our reader's took the opportunity to write an insightful addendum to the above article. He took issue with one of the examples we gave. He writes that we were listing examples of "alleged Republican corruption". This is a misinterpretation on his part. Our intent was only to list examples of arguably questionable legal direction. But enough of our explanation, please take the time to read this well written, first-hand account of what went on back in 1989.
Dear Watchdog---While reading your article below I was captivated by your stroll down Memory Lane to events in 1989 involving then Sussex County Sheriff Fred Cooper. I represented Sheriff Cooper in that matter and so have personal knowledge of what happened back then. Your article presents a tease of just a few of the preliminary details of the case that give a distorted view of the issues. The article also fails to mention Sheriff Cooper’s total vindication in court with complete dismissal of all charges. As Fred’s attorney, I was there, and like Paul Harvey used to say, your readers need to hear the rest of the story. Sheriff Cooper’s actions were proven to be entirely proper and legitimate then, both by the trial court in Morristown (Judge Stanton), which dismissed the indictment, as well as by a panel of judges in the Appellate Division which rejected the Att’y Genl’s appeal of the dismissal. It’s unfair to slime with half-truths such a respected, stalwart, kind, humble man as Fred Cooper, especially as he’s passed on these many years and can’t defend himself. I’m pleased and honored as Fred’s former lawyer to set the record straight.
The article makes a general reference to the Dem. candidate for Sheriff in 1989 as a “county employee.” While that statement is certainly true, it fails to convey that the individual was Joe Diemar, an employee in the Sheriff’s Dept. Fred was the one who hired Diemar in the Sheriff’s Dept. in the first place as an act of good-heartedness and charitable feeling, Fred being a Republican and a legendary vote-getter in Sussex County electoral politics. Over time, Sheriff Cooper came to repose more and more trust in Diemar, so that at the time of these events, Diemar wasn’t just an ordinary employee in the Sheriff’s Dept., but had been appointed by Fred as Warden of the County jail and also an Undersheriff. These positions of Undersheriff and Warden are recognized in NJ law as carrying implicit trust as part of the Sheriff’s top management/policy making team. When Fred learned to his great disappointment that Diemar was considering running against him for County Sheriff on the Dem. ticket, he met with Joe and informed him that he could stay on as jail Warden/Undersheriff, but if he indeed intended to run against him for Sheriff in the general election, he would have to terminate his employment. Joe Diemar replied that he was definitely running against Fred as a Dem., so Fred legally, appropriately, and justifiably told him to clear out his desk.
Bear in mind that Richard Honig, a fellow Dem. of Diemar, was the Sussex County Prosecutor at that time. He did all the preliminary investigation but then had to refer the matter to the Att’y Gen. to take over because of the obvious conflict of investigating a fellow County office holder. That’s why you have the reference in your article to the State Grand Jury and a quote from the Att’y. Gen. The article correctly recounts the disgraceful action of the Att’y Gen’l’s office in obtaining an indictment against Fred Cooper, but unfortunately omits “the rest of the story.”
After the State Grand Jury indictment was handed up, I filed a motion to dismiss all charges, because Sheriff Cooper’s actions as charged not only failed to constitute crimes, but also were historically recognized in NJ and throughout the rest of the country as proper and legitimate prerogatives of implicit to the office of the sheriff. Bear in mind, this was not firing a low level guard or sheriff’s officer for exercising free speech rights or because of belonging to the other political party. Everyone recognizes that would be at least questionable if not downright improper. Diemar, however, had a high level position of trust within Sheriff Cooper’s management team who was now attempting to oust him from office. New Jersey law, and indeed the law of the land clearly and explicitly recognizes the Sheriff’s right to terminate the employment of a high level appointee in a position of trust on these grounds, recognizing that the termination is not merely on account of generic political differences, but because the appointee has decided to run in an election for the same political office against the person who appointed him. This erodes the very trust that the Sheriff is entitled to rely on for someone in Diemar’s position. The trial court agreed with our motion to dismiss on these grounds. Judge Stanton threw the indictment out long before trial, meaning that the Att’y Gen’s case was so weak and devoid of legal and factual support that it didn’t even deserve to have the jury consider it.
The Att’y Gen. foolishly wasted even more taxpayers’ money by appealing the dismissal to the Appellate Division, which slapped him down once again as expected, rejecting the appeal. Fred was legally vindicated, won his reelection by an overwhelming margin of victory, and served out his years as Sheriff until he retired with honor, respect, and distinction. He was a beloved figure in Sussex County’s history, and should be remembered for the true worth of all his accomplishments and decades of service to Sussex County, not unjustly smeared as a by-product of an effort to go after someone else.
So, while your article inaccurately portrays this case as emblematic of alleged Republican corruption, what it actually represented was an despicable machination by the other political party to misuse the criminal process in a (fortunately) unsuccessful effort to destroy one of the most popular, respected political figures ever in Sussex County history when they could never do so fairly and squarely at the ballot box. That’s the real story, and that’s the rest of the story.
I hope there will be a way that you can print this piece as a clarification in one of your next editions to the unfair and unjust implications regarding Sheriff Fred Cooper in your article about Dennis McConnell.
We admire Mr. Kraemer's legal ability and salute his work on behalf of his client. This is a strong and forthright corrective to our story, which was not meant in any way as an attack on former Sheriff Cooper. In fact, our story does not mention his name.
The focus of our story are the policies of county attorney Dennis McConnell. Our point is that with different legal advice, the Cooper-Diemar affair of 1989 wouldn't have ended with the mess of an indictment with all its attendant costs to taxpayers. It reminds us very much of another, more recent case, involving the advice someone got that led to the firing of Skip Danielson, who also worked for the Sheriff's office. That ended up costing the taxpayers a bundle too.
In contrast, let's look at how the District 24 Legislators handled a similar situation in 2013. Like high ranking members of the Sheriff's Department, legislative employees occupy politically sensitive "positions of trust". In 2013, one such employee openly supported the candidacy of someone who was running directly against one of her bosses, and indirectly against a team composed of all her bosses.
In contrast to 1989, the situation in 2013 was handled without litigation. Instead of firing that employee, the legislators afforded her great leeway in self-expression. They interpreted the First Amendment in the broadest way and, for that reason, that employee continues to work there. And the taxpayers were not obliged to pay a cent to resolve the dispute.
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