Former Ratepayer Advocate Socked With $11,000 Fine for Ethics Violations

Tom Johnson | September 30, 2014 | Energy & Environment
Commission faults Seema Singh for simultaneously serving as ratepayer advocate and president of special-interest group

Former ratepayer advocate Seema Singh was fined $11,000 for ethics violations.
A former ratepayer advocate has been fined $11,000 for ethics violations, most of which stem from her simultaneously working for the state while serving as president of the Asian Indian Chamber of Commerce (AICC), and allegedly influencing the awarding of government contracts to five vendors associated with the group.

The State Ethics Commission handed down the penalties against Seema Singh, who was ratepayer advocate during the Corzine administration, a Cabinet-level post that entrusts her with representing the interest of business and residential customers on utility issues.

“As president of the AICC, Singh held a leadership role in a trade organization whose mission was to further the economic interest of the member business,’’ according to the final decision by the commission, a post that put her at odds with her job as ratepayer advocate.

Singh’s attorney, Herbert Waldman, has filed an appeal of the decision in the courts, saying the ruling by the commission is “both unfair and wrong.’’ He described the state agency as both the prosecutor, which brought the charges, and the judge, deciding the case.

The decision by the commission, however, was especially scathing, saying Singh, a Princeton attorney, violated sections of the New Jersey conflict of interest law and the ratepayer advocate’s own code of ethics. Singh declined to comment, forwarding questions to her attorney.

Singh’s biggest fine, $10,000, stemmed from her position as president of the AICC –and her activities in support of the business organization — while also serving as ratepayer advocate.

The commission accused her of awarding five vendors contracts to members of the AICC, allegedly due to Singh’s influence. In one case, she directed an aide to contact the company about submitting bids for a contract, according to the commission. In another instance, a contract was awarded to an organization member despite the recommendation of an IT specialist that it be given to a competitor.

“The evidence is clear that Singh was involved in RPA’s awarding of contracts to other, not utility AICC members,’’ the commission stated in its decision.
Waldman disputed that assessment, arguing the commission failed to understand her role as a member of the Cabinet.

“She was a member of the government. One part was to get more minority vendors for the state and that’s exactly what she did,’’ he said. “There’s no evidence she was doing anything improper.’’

An administrative judge, who presided over hearings in the case, in most instances found that the commission failed to establish that Singh acted to obtain an unwarranted privilege or advantage for vendors or that Singh explicitly directed her staff as to which vendor should receive the contract.

Nevertheless, he recommended the $10,000 penalty for Singh holding both positions simultaneously, which led to the “perception of a conflict.’’

During her tenure as president of the AICC, while also serving as ratepayer advocate, Singh corresponded with a number of regulated utilities, including AT&T, Verizon, and Public Service Electric & Gas, to make contributions to participate in the organization’s events, according to emails found on her state-owned computer, the commission said.

For instance, AT&T gave $5,000 to sponsor an AICC dinner gala, according to the commission.

“The receipt of AICC emails from utilities on state time and state email demonstrates not just an overlap, but a complete eradication of the line separating Singh’s state duties and the outside interests with the AICC, ‘’ the commission said.

The commission also fined Singh $500 in two other instances of ethical violations.
One involved sending a letter to the superintendent of the state police to have a traffic ticket expunged. The other involved using a state computer to communicate with a person she “appears to demonstrate a romantic or otherwise intimate relationship [with],’’ a potential conflict of interest because of his business interests, according to the commission.