Government Transparency, Threats, And Intimidation - In Sussex County
It is no secret that I use New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) to obtain information from government agencies, school districts, and local and municipal government bodies. I have written literally hundreds of requests. Rarely, if ever, is there a problem in getting the information requested.
That is true whether the entity is controlled by Democrats or Republicans. Occasionally the request requires additional clarification or specificity, other times the entity will call to ensure I know how much information I am requesting. Once in a while an entity will respond by asking for the additional 21 days they are entitled to, in addition to the 7 days they have, to respond.
I bring all of this up because last February I wrote about a “Vendor’s PAC” in Sussex County called the “Skylands Victory PAC.“ Since that post, the Newark Star-Ledger has written about these types of PAC’s and how they skirt Pay-To-Play laws and hurt taxpayers. Late last night, PolitickerNJ posted an article regarding millions being spent by a “Vendor’s PAC” in Middlesex County.
After my first article, I started getting e-mail from a couple of different individuals in Sussex County about the “Skylands Victory PAC”. What I was learning was very disturbing, as their actions appeared to be interfering with good government in several municipalities throughout the county, while costing taxpayers an untold amount of money, yet at the same time enriching members of the PAC.
Back to the Open Public Records Act and Sussex County. Earlier this year, I was intrigued by Sussex County businessman Bader Qarmout’s candidacy for U.S. Senate. Using OPRA, I was able to get an awful lot of information on Qarmout, his business dealings, and troubles with various State agencies. His response was to threaten and intimidate me, going so far as to send two thugs to my home. Regular readers of CNJ know that this thuggery did nothing to stop CNJ’s reporting on the many problems of Bader Qarmout.
Fast forward a few months, and suddenly, others in Sussex County are resorting to threats, harassment, and intimidation as a result of OPRA requests. I have filed dozens of OPRA requests in municipalities throughout Sussex County as well as with the Freeholder Board. The requests were filed in an effort to determine just what the “Skylands Victory Pac” does, whether or not it helps or hurts taxpayers, whether or not it is operating by taking advantage of a loophole in our pay-to-play laws.
While some requests have been answered in the manner I have become accustomed to, many have not. Those requests usually have these same things in common:
1) They were made to the Township of Vernon
2) They have not been fulfilled
3) The correspondence back and forth regarding the OPRA requests are coming from their Township Attorney, Kevin Kelly
Kevin Kelly, who has the professional services contract to provide legal services to Vernon, is also one of the three founding members of the “Skylands Victory PAC.”
It appears to be a clear conflict of interest for Kevin Kelly to be denying and obfuscating the requests for information in Vernon Township.
Vernon Township appears to detest transparency and open government. The requests that have been filed under OPRA, which, by law, are supposed to remain confidential (subject to an OPRA request) have quickly made their way around the county, including at least one Sussex County Freeholder. The requests have been used against candidates running for office throughout the county, presumably by friends of PAC members. How, better yet why, would other private citizens have access to, and know what was on an OPRA request filed with the Township of Vernon?
A Sussex County Freeholder, Rich Zeoli, is also somehow aware of the OPRA requests. Zeoli, a radio host on WPHT 1210 “The Big Talker”, out of Philadelphia, has sent bizarre e-mails to me in an attempt to intimidate and harass me because of the OPRA requests.
Others that I know, including good friends, in and out of Sussex County, have been contacted in an effort to get me to withdraw my requests and not make any more. Anonymous people have even taken to a blog site and threatened violence over these OPRA requests. Apparently open and transparent government is not what Vernon Township wants to give their citizens. Mayor Marotta seems content to let the Skylands Victory PAC run the township. The real losers are the taxpayers.
Contrast the way that Vernon Township deals with OPRA requests to the way that Flemington Boro in Hunterdon County is dealing with my friend Joey Novick’s OPRA requests by reading this Newark Star-Ledger story.
What is the “Skylands Victory PAC” trying so hard to protect? Why is the Township of Vernon openly flouting the Open Public Records Law? Why is a Sussex County Freeholder contacting anyone about an OPRA request in a municipality?
In the coming days, CNJ will try to answer these questions.
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