Sadly, in New Jersey, there is nothing particularly unusual about elected officials using their public positions for personal gain.
But Lawrence C. Durr, a former mayor, committeeman and Planning Board member in Chesterfield Township in Burlington County, has raised (or is it lowered?) the corruption bar considerably, according to a new report by the Office of the State Comptroller.
Local officials should take this report as a warning and a lesson - although, we have to admit, it's a rare individual who has the chutzpah that Durr apparently has.
According to state Comptroller Matthew Boxer's report issued last week, Durr pocketed a profit of nearly $200,000 in a complicated private land deal involving Transfer of Development Rights credits. (Under the TDR program, developers pay farmers the difference between what their land is worth as a farm and its value if developed. The developers get title to the land and TDR credits that allow them to build in a separate area designated for growth.)
The way corruption usually unfolds in New Jersey is that a developer (these days, often working undercover for the FBI) offers an official an envelope full of cash in return for preferential treatment. Durr, at least, worked hard for his money.
At a meeting of the Chesterfield Planning Board - on which he sat - Durr stepped down from the dais to make a personal pitch for additional TDR credits for a property he had purchased. The board - whose members Durr had a role in appointing - approved his request and he returned to the dais. That little deal increased the value of his TDR credits, which he already had an agreement to sell to another developer, by $666,250, the report said.
He wasn't done yet. Acting as an official of Chesterfield Township and without disclosing his personal stake in the project, according to the report, Durr intervened with a county agency to get additional credits for the developer he was selling to.
And finally, when a matter concerning this deal came before the Township Committee - on which Durr sat at the time - he made the necessary motion and voted in favor of it. That vote saved the developer he was selling to more than $1 million, according to the report.
Through it all, Durr never revealed his deal with the developer or disclosed the arrangement on his state financial-disclosure forms, the report said.
Wow. You don't get much more brazen than this.
Boxer has concluded that Durr violated the Local Government Ethics Law and referred the matter to the attorney general for possible criminal prosecution.
Boxer has also proposed increasing the maximum fine under the ethics law from $500 to $10,000. State Sen. Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, has proposed transferring enforcement of the Local Government Ethics Law from the Department of Community Affairs to the State Ethics Board. Both are sensible responses to the Durr case. But in the end, there probably is no way to eliminate such corruption in a state that grows public officials as brazen as this.