It wasn’t hard to predict that the Brookdale Community College scandal could turn into a potential political hot potato.
This is a scandal of major proportions that forced the school’s president to resign in disgrace amid allegations of improper spending habits and raised questions about whether the board of trustees was doing an effective oversight job.
But the political overtones are there. After all, it was on the watch of board Chairman Howard C. Birdsall and Vice Chairman Jacob S. Elkes—two GOP heavy-hitters--that the ex President Peter F. Burnham mess developed. Were they asleep at the switch? Maybe that’s what happens after serving 23 and 16 years, respectively.
So it’s interesting to watch as Republican county and state officeholders are either distancing themselves from the Brookdale debacle that’s being investigated by the prosecutor after a revealing internal audit or they’re being super-cautious about what--if anything—they say about Birdsall and Elkes resignations.
The first clue of this came when two county Republican board of freeholders’ members—Director Robert D. Clifton and Lillian G. Burry—who supported Burnham-- did not return phone calls or answer e-mails that asked the hard questions about resignations and campaign contributions.
Two other freeholders—Republican Deputy Director John P. Curley who first sensed there were severe financial problems at the college and courageously brought them to public attention and Democrat Amy A. Mallet not only want Birdsall and Elkes out of there quickly but Brookdale board attorney John Cantalupo as well. Freeholder Thomas A. Arnone wants resignations within three to six months.
The next clue came when the three legislators from the old 13th District—also all Republicans—went quiet. And remember—Brookdale, in recent years, received anywhere from about $10 million to about $13 million annually in state funding. They should have been checking to insure that state money was not at risk.
Yet, Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos, Jr. was his usual silent self’. He always tries to avoid controversy when it’s close to home. But he did find time to get involved in the “Snooki” student fee flap at Rutgers and came up with what has been described as a laughable bill that would attempt to regulate where the student money goes. What a legislative waste of time. And Assemblywoman Amy H. Handlin—probably the county legislator with the most stature and depth —was in an unusual “no comment” mode. The reasons? She was either teaching at Monmouth University where she also works or out-of –the state, an aide said. Monmouth Republican Chairman Joseph Oxley, a friend of Handlin’s, took the same approach. However, Handlin now is asking the state comptroller to at least review all community college presidents’ pay and perks.
Assemblyman Samuel D. Thompson started to answer some questions—but then thought better of it. Besides, he was busy at the time trying to explain how he double-dips and collects a pension check and another check from his elected official’s salary in what has been described as a “unique” case.
Assemblyman Declan J. O’Scanlon, Jr. of the old 12th District, through an aide, said he would go along with Freeholder Curley on the resignations issue. “John Curley is no shrinking violet so I’ll defer to him,” the assemblyman said in an e-mail.
Sen. Jennifer Beck, also through a 12th District aide, stated she goes along with what O’Scanlon said. Then she didn’t answer the questions, changed the subject and said she is “working to end the legal loophole of collecting pension and salary” with a bill that “suspends the pension of a retired public employee who resumes public employment with compensation more than $15,000.”
Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande, also in the old 12th, dodged the hard questions—but, through an aide, said she was concerned with the contract Burnham had with the board and is taking steps statewide “that would create a model contract legislatively”.
And in the old 11th District, it was more of the same. Sen. Sean T. Kean said, through an aide, the county prosecutor is investigating and “I’m sure they will thoroughly review all transactions for any criminal behavior.”
Assembly members Mary Pat Angelini and David P. Rible, also in the old 11th, jointly said, through an aide, that it would be “inappropriate” to say anything while the matter was under investigation and any other Brookdale questions should be directed to the freeholders.
Even usually tough-talking Republican Gov. Chris Christie, when it comes to government spending abuses, was taking a wait-and-see approach. Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the Burnham “perks were extraordinary and inappropriate” adding: “And obviously recent events suggest something else was wrong there and needs to be explained once it is fully clear to those who are investigating.”
Monmouth County has an abundance of talented and qualified residents capable of serving with distinction as Brookdale trustees. The freeholders should take the bold steps today to get new trustees in place and start scrubbing away the terrible stain that has darkened Brookdale’s otherwise good reputation.
Arthur Z. Kamin
Fair Haven, NJ
Arthur Z. Kamin, Fair Haven, is an independent journalist. He is a former Brookdale journalism and English adjunct instructor.