Thursday, August 24, 2006

When Will New Castle Come Clean?

The Town of New Castle needs to take a clue from New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine on how to handle a delicate situation when an employee’s behavior raises serious ethical questions that could damage public confidence in law enforcement. Just such a recent case involved the former chief law enforcement officer of New Jersey, Attorney General Zulima Farber, regarding an event which took place on May 26, 2006.

As a result of prompt independent investigation, and a 43-page report issued by a former State Appeals Court judge, Ms. Farber resigned Tuesday, August 15th, the date the report was released to the public.

But east of the Hudson, nearly everybody has stayed on the job without any disciplinary actions in a matter that has churned in Chappaqua since 1999, involving another top law enforcement officer. In this case it is a New Castle police lieutenant who kept fraudulent payroll records in order to help a fellow officer obtain a 20-year pension when the officer had actually only worked 19 years. New Castle is not New York City. Many are questioning how a year’s absence by a 19-year member of such a small police force could possibly go unnoticed by everyone else at work, in a police department which happens to be located in the community’s petite town hall? The officer in question was, in fact, busy relocating to a town in North Carolina where he owns a bar.

Where does the buck stop in the New Castle government’s chain of command? The police lieutenant accused in this matter reportedly has not been fired yet, nor disciplined. The top law enforcement officer in the community, Chief Robert Breen, is still on the job. Breen governs a department that has 40 full-time members and eight other staff in a community noted for its very low crime rate.

Town Administrator Gennaro Faiella, after learning of the matter, reportedly told Breen to “never let it happen again.” Faiella oversees personnel policies in accordance with applicable laws and regulations, in addition to supervising the town’s collective bargaining negotiations. Town police officers have been without a contract for 19 the town’s refusal to negotiate in good faith.

Town Attorney, and former Town Supervisor, Clinton Smith still holds his position. The chief elected official, Supervisor Jan Wells and the four Town Board members, all lawyers, have not issued any report on this matter even though the Westchester District Attorney’s office had informed Faiella of its investigation of this matter as early as 2003. No public demand for any resignation has been made by the town board to date.

The State Comptroller’s Office, which manages public employee pension funds, has also been very involved in this case. The office of State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer filed a civil lawsuit in late July against the two New Castle police officers, seeking to recover damages of $100,000 and more than $180,000 in pension funds paid out by the state of New York since 2000. Faiella has stated, “The town (of New Castle) was not named in the suit and we’re not in a position to comment about the allegations.”

Contrast that response with the case of the recent resignation of the New Jersey Attorney General. New Jersey requires each agency to establish “a code of ethics to govern and guide the conduct of the State officers and employees...” Among the purposes of the Code is, “the preservation of public confidence in the administration of justice and enforcement of laws.”

The judge investigating that matter said that the Attorney General’s conduct constituted a violation “of the Code of Ethics of the Department of Law and Public.

Section II C provides: Officers of employees shall not perform their official duties in any manner from which it might be reasonably inferred that the influence… of a personal relationship… caused them to act in a biased or partial manner. The Attorney General is that state’s chief law enforcement officer. She is charged with responsibility for ensuring that the laws are faithfully and fairly enforced.”

Ordinary citizens rely upon their local governments to administer laws in a fair and evenhanded process. This duty is a continuing one and especially timely as school will be starting in Chappaqua right after Labor Day. For parents of high school students, it can be a time of much angst as they send their teenagers on their way, often in the family automobile. They hope their children are listening as they receive explicit instructions regarding driving laws and regulations, and the possible consequences of any violations.

Taking no public action nor issuing a public report when police officers are accused of pension fraud does not instill confidence in taxpaying parents whose children may be arrested or ticketed by the same police department. Teenagers are often the first members of the community to learn that teachers or police officers have given anyone favorable treatment, news that spreads like a fire across a drought stricken praire. These kids know that they will be grounded, driving privileges withdrawn, and even suspended from school if they violate parental and school district rules.

The lessons taught in such circumstances can have far-reaching implications. The first one is the importance of having a code of ethics to help guide behavior. Children look to adults the same way citizens look to their governments for leadership, especially under difficult circumstances.

The town of New Castle could look to other organizations for ethics code models. For example, most large corporations have compliance groups that govern behavior in the conduct of business. Staff under scrutiny are often placed on leave, paid or unpaid, when circumstances warrant such removal, while independent third party investigations are conducted.

The Town Board hasn’t publicly disciplined anyone yet but instead hired a consultant in the last year to conduct a feasibility study that has yet to be made available to the public regarding expansion of the Police Departments space needs at town hall or to relocate the 48 member department and the town’s justice court to another location. To some members of the public, this constitutes a reward for bad behavior.

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