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Abraham v. Township of Teaneck Ethics Board

March 25, 2002

JOHN ABRAHAM, APPELLANT,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF TEANECK ETHICS BOARD, RESPONDENT.



Before Judges Pressler,*fn1 Ciancia and Parrillo.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Parrillo, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued March 12, 2002

On appeal from the Local Finance Board, Department of Community Affairs.

This is an appeal from a final determination of the Local Finance Board of the Department of Community Affairs (Board) adopting the initial decision of the administrative law judge (ALJ), which found that appellant John Abraham, while Mayor of the Township of Teaneck, violated the Local Government Ethics Law, specifically N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.6(4), by failing to disclose his interest in a company known as Abcon Environmental on his financial disclosure statement for 1992. The final decision of the Board also adopted the penalty of $100 assessed against appellant in the initial decision. For reasons that follow, we affirm.

Some background is in order. The Local Government Ethics Law (Act) was enacted on February 20, 1991 and became effective ninety days thereafter on May 21, 1991. L. 1991, c. 29, § 27. The Act establishes a statutory code of ethics, N.J.S.A. 40A:9- 22.5, applicable to, among others, "local government officers," N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.3(g), including elected officials, such as appellant. N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.3(g)(1). The code of ethics generally provides that a local government officer shall not engage in any activity that places him in an actual or apparent conflict of interest regarding his public duties. N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.5(a) to (k).

To that end, the Act requires local government officers to annually file a financial disclosure statement containing information about, among other things:

The name and address of all business organizations in which the local government officer or a member of his immediate family had an interest during the preceding calendar year. [N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.6(4).]

This information is to be filed on a financial disclosure form prescribed by the Board. N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.6. The initial filings for local government officers were due on August 19, 1991 (90 days following the effective date of the Act). Subsequent filings are due on or before April 30 of each year. Ibid. The filed financial disclosure statements are deemed to be public records. Ibid.

The Act, including the code of ethics and the financial disclosure statement, is administered and enforced by the Board. N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.4. However, a county or municipality at its option may establish a county or municipal ethics board to adopt a local ethics code and to enforce the code of ethics, subject, of course, to the approval of the Board. N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.13; N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.19. A local government officer aggrieved by a finding of a local ethics board may appeal the decision to the Board. N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.18; N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.19. Thereafter, the aggrieved person may appeal the decision of the Board to the Appellate Division. N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.9; R. 2:2-3(a)(2).

The Township of Teaneck has established a local ethics board in accordance with N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.19. By letter dated September 22, 1993, Teaneck resident Ronald Schwartz, an attorney, filed a complaint with the Mayor and Council, Township of Teaneck, and the Chairman of the Teaneck Ethics Board alleging certain ethical violations on the part of appellant Abraham. After determining that the complaint warranted consideration of specific charges, the Teaneck Ethics Board conducted hearings spanning fourteen days, involving testimony of seven witnesses and twenty exhibits. At the conclusion, on March 16, 1994, the Teaneck Ethics Board adopted a resolution that found Abraham had committed three ethics violations stemming from his fifty percent ownership interest in Abcon Environmental Technologies, Inc. (Abcon). One of them – the subject of this appeal – is that Abraham failed to disclose his interest in Abcon on his financial disclosure statement for 1992 in violation of N.J.S.A. 40A:9- 22.6(4).*fn2

Abraham appealed to the Board and the matter was transmitted to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) as a contested case. By agreement of the parties, in lieu of a hearing de novo, the ALJ reviewed the record compiled by the Teaneck Ethics Board and issued an initial decision on April 7, 2000, finding that Abraham violated N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.6(4) by failing to disclose his interest in Abcon on his financial disclosure form for 1992, and dismissing the other charges. In accordance with N.J.S.A. 40A:9- 22.10, the ALJ assessed the statutory minimum penalty of $100 against Abraham for the violation of N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.6(4). The Board adopted the initial decision on May 10, 2000.

On appeal, Abraham claims that he was denied procedural due process by the local ethics board's acceptance and review of the citizen complaint against him, and that the final administrative decision finding him in violation of N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.6(4) is not supported in the evidence. We find no merit in either contention.

Our role in reviewing administrative action is limited. Matter of Musick, 143 N.J. 206, 216 (1996). In the search for arbitrary or unreasonable action, the judicial role ...


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