Monday, February 2, 2015

Township Clerk, Officials Under State Investigation For Allegedly Lying About Existence of Records

A former New Jersey resident and transparency government activist Harry Scheeler has filed two separate complaints against Acting Clerk Kelli Danieli, Township Solicitor Michael Fitzgerald, and another Attorney assigned to the Township to defend a lawsuit. 

The complaints filed with the Government Records Council (GRC), allege the Township violated Scheeler's right under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) by intentionally withholding a lawsuit settlement agreement made between the Township and former Township Manager Stephen Bonanni. The settlement was approved by Township Council in November 2014 for $92,000. 

Scheeler alleges in the complaints that on two separate occasions he filed an OPRA request for the settlement agreement and the Township denied the release of the agreement by continually stating the agreement was never executed, which Scheeler claims the Township lied.

According to the settlement agreement, once released by the Township, Bonanni executed the agreement on November 4, 2014, sixteen days prior to Scheeler's first OPRA request.

On December 22, 2014, Scheeler filed his second OPRA request for the same document and Acting Township Clerk Kelli Danieli responded again stating the agreement had not been executed. Scheeler alleged in his second complaint that the Township again lied and intentionally withheld the document. 

Regarding the first complaint filed, Township Manager Susan Jacobucci stated, "there was no basis for the complaint" that was filed by Scheeler. 

Township Solicitor Michael Fitzgerald stated, "Pursuant to the instructions of the defense counsel, there were issues which needed to be resolved before the settlement became  final. The document may have been "executed" by Bonanni, but that was only part of the settlement and it remained only tentative until all issues were resolved."

Fitzgerald later stated in an email to Scheeler that the Acting Clerk, "relied upon the prior legal advice that the settlement was not final. Saying that the settlement was "unsigned" was a misunderstanding and wrong, but it wasn't intentional."  Fitzgerald further requested Scheeler withdraw his complaint. 

A Township Official further acknowledged the dispute between Scheeler and the Township regarding the release of the documents and stated it was their understanding that the Township Solicitor was at fault for the discrepancy and would work towards correctly the issue moving forward.

Scheeler stated, "OPRA has 24 exemptions. Outside of these exemptions the government can not for any reason withhold a document from the public. After confronting the township with the fact I had knowledge Bonanni was in fact paid they finally released the settlement."

"The settlement clearly showed it was in fact executed prior to the dates which I requested them. Had the clerk just denied the document and claimed an exemption this would have been an unlawful denial complaint" Scheeler stated. 

Scheeler further stated, "Because the clerk attempted to deliberately conceal the document the GRC must impose a fine which the clerk must pay not the taxpayers. Again we have a situation in Galloway where the government acted inappropriately and instead of just admitting wrong doing they are going to spend tax payer money to defend actions that were not permitted under law."

Scheeler requested the Government Records Council fine any of the parties involved responsible for the deliberate and intentional withholding of the agreement. If the GRC determines any of the parties intentionally violated OPRA and charges a fine, the cost of the fine is $1,000.


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