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Embattled Ethics Commission Confirms Samson Probe Underway

The ethics charge against Burdge stem from a single phone call he made in February 2009 while serving as a union representative on the State Health Benefits Commission. When CWA members asked Burdge about a questionnaire they received that was marked “State Health Benefits Plan” and asking them to send personal information to an Illinois address, Burdge called the number on the flyer, identified himself as a State Health Benefits Commission member -- which he was -- and asked a manager to call him back with information.

Burdge
Credit: Amanda Brown
Dudley Burdge, longtime CWA senior staff representative, with two other protestors, both of whom carry signs with Burdge's picture on them.

“My members were concerned about identity fraud because they were being asked to send marriage licenses and birth certificates to an out-of-state address and being threatened that they would lose coverage for their dependents if they didn’t comply,” Burdge said. “When I called, it turned out to be Aon Consultants, which was the state’s benefits consultant.”

After Christie took office in 2010, the Ethics Commission’s staff announced that it was pursuing the complaint on the grounds that Burdge should have identified himself as a CWA official, rather than a State Health Benefits Commission member, when making the call.

“The charge is so ludicrous that it’s easy to lose sight of the reasons for the charge,” said Burdge, who asserted that the Christie administration was pushing the case because of its antipathy toward the CWA and its desire to make the CWA and the state AFL-CIO spend money defending him against the allegations.

Without Merit

When the Ethics Commission finally sent the case to Administrative Law Judge Jeff Masin in January, the judge issued a ruling the following month that the complaint was without merit.

The Ethics Commission both surprised and delighted the union crowd by voting unanimously to accept the judge’s recommendation. The panel’s ruling on Lloyd’s conflict-of-interest case, however, was arguably more important in the long run because it not only upheld the Ethics Commission’s advisory to the Pinelands Commission member urging him to recuse himself on the January 11 gas pipeline construction vote, but would apply prospectively to any future vote on the application.

Both Berns and Lewis Scheindlin, the Ethics Commission’s counsel, confirmed in interviews following the meeting that the decision in the Lloyd case, which will not be issued in writing until the end of the week, would apply to any future votes on the proposal to allow South Jersey Gas to run a pipeline across 22 miles of protected preserve to connect to a power plant owned by Rockland Capital, a client of Samson’s Wolff & Samson law firm.

“It’s unfortunate, because there are rumors that this application might come before the Pinelands Commission again,” Lloyd said in an interview after being told that the ruling would apply prospectively. “I’ll look at the written decision, then decide whether to appeal.”

Lloyd and environmental leaders, including New Jersey Environmental Federation director David Pringle, who showed up at yesterday’s meeting, charged that the governor’s office, which favored construction of the pipeline, improperly sought a ruling from the Ethics Commission directing Lloyd to recuse himself from the pipeline vote because of a conflict of interest.

Lloyd argued that he should not have been directed to recuse himself simply because the Eastern Environmental Law Center, of which he is a codirector, had urged the Pinelands Commission in a letter to hold an additional hearing before the vote was taken. He noted that the environmental advocacy group did not take a position on the pipeline vote.

However, the commission voted unanimously yesterday that the request for an additional hearing by the legal advocacy group of which Lloyd is a part created an ongoing conflict of interest for Lloyd on the pipeline application, and that such a conflict would continue to exist if any future vote is taken.

Without Lloyd, the commission split 7-7 on the pipeline vote, and Christie last month became the first governor in history to veto the minutes of a Pinelands Commission meeting. Christie said he vetoed the minutes to block the commission from approving a pay increase of up to 5 percent for the Pinelands Commission staff, saying the state could not afford such pay raises.

Janelle Blackmon, staff representative for CWA Local 1040, which represents the Pineland Commission staff, said commission staffers have been in contract negotiations with the Christie administration since 2011, and that staffers make at least 30 percent less than state Department of Environmental Protection employees with similar job titles.

But the assertion by environmentalists that Christie’s veto was designed primarily to send a message to the Pinelands Commission was undercut yesterday when Christie similarly vetoed the minutes of the bistate Delaware River and Bay Authority, which runs the Delaware Memorial Bridge linking New Jersey and Delaware, for including pay increases higher and health benefit contributions lower than those of New Jersey state workers.

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