Will Phil Crabb be the John Dean of the solar scandal?

Legendary Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein was in Sussex County this week and the timing couldn't have been better.  Sussex County residents are getting an inside look at how their government is run as a scandal unfolds involving a solar energy project sold by county bureaucrats as a sure thing, a failed corporation concocted by a group of Wall Street bankers, and a bailout that endangers more taxpayers money in a process gone bad.

And what Sussex taxpayers are finding out is that the county government they pay for isn't being run by the people they elected to run it. 

While elected Freeholders come and go, real power in the county is wielded by a couple professional bureaucrats who have occupied positions of power for decades.  County Attorney Dennis McConnell has held his position for over 25 years, while County Administrator John Eskilson joined the County in 2002 --coming from Hardyston Township, where he took over as administrator ten years earlier, when Wendy Molner was mayor.

Eskilson and McConnell are masters at always keeping control of three of the Freeholder Board's five votes.  They do so in a number of ways.  For instance, when Freeholder Rich Zeoli's wife needed a job, she was accommodated at the company where Eskilson's wife was Director of Business Development, ThorLabs.

The pair of bureaucrats prey on incoming freeholders whose minds are open to suggestion.  Often unsure of the job and insecure,  the bureaucrats school them on the ways of county government.  And so you get a Freeholder like Richard Vohden, who will tell you that he believes his role is to "ratify" whatever the county bureaucrats decide.  Seriously, he actually believes this.

The two bureaucrats operate like rogue managers at a corporation whose Board of Directors has become enfeebled and unable to exercise authority.  Every mistake -- from the AmeriPay scandal to the near theft of the county dump -- is brushed over lest the shareholders, the taxpayers, get up in arms.  "Don't look back, look forward" is what they say.

They control information and communications.  That was why Eskilson talked then Freeholder Director Vohden into giving him the job of Clerk of the Freeholder Board -- in addition to County Administrator.   A very unusual arrangement, but it leaves the Board with no independent staff.  It is like turning over your corporate governance committee to the CEO and it is why an official letter from county freeholders goes out to municipal governments without it even being discussed by the Board.

It is why county freeholders are forced to hire their own attorneys for honest representation and forced to use the state's Open Public Records Act to obtain basic information from the county that should be made available to them by the people who ostensibly work for them.  But if anything is clear, these two bureaucrats don't work for the elected representatives of the people, they work for themselves.  And they have made a pretty penny doing so.

Now Eskilson is in an open policy battle with some of the people he is supposed to work for, pushing his agenda and undermining the initiatives of his elected bosses.  He's even gone so far as to push his policy preferences with the political campaigns of candidates for freeholder.  None of this is very ethical, so far as his profession is concerned.  It undermines who they are, their status, and the protections generally afforded them. 

If Eskilson wants legitimate political power he has the opportunity to run for elected office.  That way the voters get to decide.  And if he wants to transform his office into that of an elected County Executive, he probably has the votes on the Freeholder Board to accomplish that, but again, the voters will have the final word and John Eskilson seems to want to avoid that.

Which brings us to Freeholder Director Phil Crabb.  Like John Dean, "the master manipulator of Watergate," Freeholder Crabb has played the role of chief explainer and apologist for the Sussex solar scandal.  Frequently incorrect in his facts, flip-flopping on tactics, always fudging what he "meant" to say.  First Crabb was for public disclosure in advance of voting on the settlement, then he was against it.  At various times he supported and then opposed reviews of what went wrong.  Then he was for public meetings to explain the solar settlement, and then he opposed them.  The word "flannel mouth" comes to mind.

Crabb's latest tactic is to make the claim to the media that (1) people don't care about the scandal; (2) there is a "backlash" against those who do care; and (3) that if you do care about a failed project and a bailout that is costing taxpayers $26 million it is all because of "politics". 

Crabb sounds remarkably like John Dean in the early days of Watergate.  That's because people like Crabb always forget that the public is busy trying to earn a living to feed the kids, keep a roof over their heads, and pay the property taxes screw-ups like Crabb stick them with.  But they aren't stupid, as Crabb seems to think.  They notice.  It takes time, genuine public outrage is usually a slow burn, but burn it does.  And when it does, watch out.

Anyway, Crabb doesn't have any data to back up his claims, he just pulls these things out of his butt.  It is the way of a man who has been very lucky in politics.  In the aftermath of Steve Oroho's hard-fought victory over Guy Gregg, Crabb was handed Gary Chiusano's Freeholder seat -- the seat Gary had to take from an incumbent.  Then he screwed up, didn't file his campaign finance reports for four years -- while he raised and spent money on stuff for someone -- and almost got asked to step down.  Rich Zeoli went to NJELEC and pleaded on his behalf and Crabb got caught up.  He was lucky in not being fined last year when he was up for re-election but those fines are coming. 

If not for the intervention of Steve Lonegan with a negative attack on opponent Dennis Mudrick, Crabb would have lost his 2011 re-election bid.  Last year, Crabb spent a lot of money against someone who didn't campaign at all, but still only won 60-40.  That was largely due to Crabb not having done a poll and not knowing that the issue he based his campaign on, the sale of the Homestead nursing home, isn't very popular with voters in Sussex County. 

Once again sans data, Crabb's  current performance is especially weak.  "All will be well..."