“It’s time for the Brookdale Board of  Trustees to begin taking action to rename Larrison Hall, its $15 million showpiece academic building that, amid a climate of county corruption and scandal, has become a tarnished symbol of Monmouth’s two-year institution of higher education.” 

Those words—that still have  validity-- are from an opinion piece by this writer and published r six years ago. It was a different time—but, interestingly,  some of the  political  players now cast  in a shocking  new Brookdale drama are the same  and the scenario is similar. 

It  shows that political cronyism, patronage and favoritism remain an integral part of the Brookdale culture. And the Lincroft  campus  still can  use  a good cleansing. 

The new drama  involves the  fast-moving,   explosive  events   in the last few  weeks when  the college president resigned amid allegations of financial impropriety; searching  questions are  being asked   about his outrageous pay and perks;   the county prosecutor is investigating his spending practices ;  the business and finance vice president was  placed on administrative leave with pay;  a plan to raise  tuition was  dumped; there are official  demands  the board of trustees   resign for lack of budget oversight;  the trustees are  scrambling to come up with ways  to  check college spending; the  Board of Freeholders remains divided on what action to take in the crisis  and, out-of-nowhere,  a former state trooper who is a  fraud investigation expert rapidly and strangely was  named interim president. 

Whew. That’s a lot of trouble for any college to absorb at one time.   But the telltale signs  of that trouble  have been lurking around Brookdale for a long time . It’s just that many county and state  politicians and college administrators didn’t  have the courage and ethical purity   to tackle the trouble  head-on..The trustees took the word of  Dr. Peter F. Burnham, the school’s now  ex –president, that all was going well.  Before resigning, Burnham    was placed on administrative leave without pay. There was no admission of wrongdoing.

Fortunately,   Freeholder Deputy Director John P. Curley, a Republican, was instrumental  bringing to light  the Burnham pay and expense package as the trustees voted to raise tuition. Thanks to Curley and Freeholder Amy A. Mallet, a Democrat,  the freeholders voted to repeal the tuition increase.

Larrison Hall  was named for former longtime Republican Board of Freeholders Director Harry W. Larrison, Jr. , charged with accepting bribes from developers and official corruption before he died in 2005. The case never went to trial. Still, Larrison was one of the big fish caught in the first FBI sweep in its Operation Bid Rig investigation that led to the arrest of 11 officials in the county that year. It was a shameful time in Monmouth history.

Then-U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie-- now Governor Christie-- had this to say about the former freeholder director: 

“Harry Larrison is one of the most enduring political figures in Monmouth County and long held himself out to be a fine public servant. In fact, as alleged,  he used his power, prestige and political clout to corruptly serve himself.”

County government, at that time, was thrown into  turmoil from which it still  has not  recovered fully.  That’s when former freeholder deputy director Amy H. Handlin, a Republican and  now an  assemblywoman,   took bold steps  to start the county board on a path of much-needed ethical and fiscal reform. And she fought hard   to get the name of tainted Larrison Hall changed.  

Although Burnham and the trustees were not about to remove the  Larrison letters   from the building—Handlin was able to at least  broker a deal with Burnham to  have two educational  events with ethics themes—a commencement address by Burnham  and a panel discussion  forum for students, faculty and the community.  Both fell short of addressing the real issues of corruption  cronyism and patronage.

What has emerged in looking at  Brookdale’s   past and the startling events of today are  that the  Board of Trustees Chairman Howard C. Birdsall and Vice Chairman Jacob S. Elkes must resign as quickly as possible.  With Burnham, they led the trustees   on a pitted road that  raised legitimate questions about the very integrity of Brookdale  and its ethical practices. 

Birdsall and Elkes were longtime personal, political  and business  buddies of Larrison.  Not only was the naming of Larrison Hall questionable—but so was the naming of the Collins  Arena after Larrison’s chief lieutenant and county administrator, Robert J. Collins, And then  Collins, with his county connections, went on to become the president of a Birdsall Engineering component.  Talk about cronyism and coziness. Collins died three years ago.

Indeed,  Brookdale needs a new, clean  direction on the board of trustees—especially as it begins the important and critical search for a new  president with  the highest academic,  administrative and ethical qualities. The time to start is now. 

Arthur Z. Kamin
Fair Haven, NJ 

Arthur Z. Kamin, Fair Haven, is an independent journalist and taught journalism and English as a Brookdale adjunct instructor.