August 07, 2006

Union County Alliance - Let the sunshine in!!!!!

Date: August 10, 2006
Contact: Union County Watchdog Association, Inc.

UNION COUNTY- The states Government Records Council (GRC), the official agency which oversees the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), has ruled today that the Union County Alliance is a public agency and is thereby subject to the provisions of the OPRA.

A complaint was filed with the GRC when a request for records was denied by the Alliance. Tina Renna, on behalf of the Union County Watchdog Association, sought documents pertaining to the Union County Directions Newsletter. The Alliance is listed as the publisher. The Alliance responded that they are not a government agency and therefore as a 501(c)4 corporation they were not subject to the provisions of the OPRA.

Renna submitted documents to the GRC supporting her assertion that the Alliance is a public agency. Along with other evidence, Renna asserted that the Directions Newsletter is sent out labeled “Postal Patron” which is a distinction that only government organizations can use and provided one of these newsletters in support of this. Renna further asserted that the newsletter is produced in the County Administration Building using county employees and equipment and is mailed to every postal patron only days before the Primary and General Election Day, featuring freeholders and other politicians who are up for re-election throughout its pages.

A June 18, 2002 letter from an Executive Vice President of the Alliance to the Postmaster indicated that the County of Union and the Alliance share a postal account.

In an October 21, 2001 letter from the County of Union Department of Finance to the Union County Alliance, the Director of Finance asks that the Alliance submit their $150,000 voucher to the County Manager, outlining details of how the funds would be spent and the goals and objectives of that spending. The letter goes on to state that payment for this voucher and invoice must be approved by the freeholders before a check can be distributed.

The GRC ruled that the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) defines “public body” as a commission, authority, board council, committee or any other group of two or more persons organized under the laws of this State, and collectively empowered as a voting body to perform a public government function affecting the rights, duties, obligations, privileges, benefits, or other legal relations of any person, or collectively authorized to spend public funds. N.J.S.A. 10:4-8a.

The Union County Alliance is a nonprofit 501(c)4 corporation which, according to a County of Union press release, was founded in 1994 as a 501(c)3 by then County Manager Ann Baron. The Alliance’s Certificate of Incorporation lists Ann Baran and then President of Kean College Dr. Henry J. Ross as the initial incorporators, indicating a Kean College address. At the time of their filing for their nonprofit status the Alliance was operating under a grant from Union County; following an initial grant from the NJ Department of Higher Education. The Alliance currently receives 80 percent of its $300,000 annual budget from the County of Union.

In his uncertified response to Renna’s complaint Michael Murray, the Executive Director of the Alliance, claimed that the Alliance’s offices are not located within a government building and that only one employee receives salary and benefits from a government agency.

Renna was able to prove that the Alliance is located within the State’s Kean University and that an officer of the Alliance is in fact listed as a Kean employee. Murray himself is listed on the Union County Payroll with a salary of $104,000. Murray also has use of a county owned 2002 Ford Explorer.

Tina Renna, President of the Union County Watchdog Association today thanked the GRC for their ruling during the public comment portion of their board meeting and went on to state, “The Union County Alliance has been blatantly involved with the County of Union in politicking at the public’s expense and up until now only God knows what else. This GRC ruling will now give the public the right to request records pertaining to how their tax-dollars are being spent. This agency needs a good looking at and because of your ruling the public can now do just that.”

View Draft Findings and Recommendations for this GRC complaint, number 2006-73 below link (final’s were not available at the time of this writing). There was only one revision to the draft findings, the Alliance has to comply with the request within 7 business days and not 10. Vincent Maltese, Chairman of the GRC stated Murray should not be given any more time to comply with a request than any other custodian of records. The GRC’s phone number is 866-850-0511

View draft findings and recommendations
This is the last in a five-part series of stories on the Union County Alliance and the taxpayer funded campaign piece they publish "Union County Directions Newsletter".

Previosly reported in this series:

Political Graft and the Stenders's thesaurus lists words for graft: Kickback, fraud, fix, dishonesty, corruption, con, collusion, and bribe

The publication “Union County Directions” is published by the County of Union through the Union County Alliance (UCA) using tax dollars and county employees. There is a mound of evidence that the publication is being used as campaign literature to promote candidates supported by the Union County Democratic Committee.

The Union County Alliance's (UCA) Newsletter "Directions" was originally a County of Union Newsletter. The county freeholders made the UCA the publisher and gave the money needed to pay for the production and printing to the Alliance. By doing this, the county could side-step the procurement bidding process.

The printing of the first two newsletters were handled by printing broker Richard Stender, d/b/a SVO Printing. Richard was the husband of then sitting Freeholder Linda Stender, who was also on the Board of the Union County Alliance. Stender is currently an assemblywoman and is running for Congress.

Richard was able to charge $20,000 more for each issue he printed than the next highest bidder.

See quotes and invoices mentioned below

SVO, owned by Richard Stender, husband of Linda Stender, charged Union County Alliance $31,892.40 for printing and mailing the summer 1999 issue of Directions (see attached invoice E). This was $13,970 more than quoted by Rentec Design Studio, who quoted printing and mailing for $17,920.

The UCA was also charged an additional $634 for film that was not included in SVO’s quote but was in Rentec’s (see attached quote C). Stender also printed the Fall 1999 issue of Directions, this time charging over $18,000 not including the film charge.

For printing the first two issues of Directions, Richard Stender charged UCA over $33,238. The Union County Alliance has claimed that they are exempt from the Open Public Records Act so getting quotes, invoices and records is impossible without their cooperation. Their un-cooperation proves their guilt.

In 2001, when Joe Renna was working for the County of Union he obtained a quote to print a 24 page full color version of Directions. AFL quoted the printing and mailing at $26,989. (see attached quote G). Richard Stender quoted the same job for $71,315, over $44,326 more than AFL. (see attached quote H). Concerns raised by Joe Renna about the difference in the cost of printing caused the county to use AFL. Renna was served with termination papers stemming from SVO not getting the contract. In the proceedings, evidence showed that e-mails used as evidence by the county were back-dated. The Judge found the county lacked credibility and ruled in Renna’s favor. The docket numbers for the case are: (OAL DKT NO. CSV 3196-03, Agency DKT. NO. 2003-2371)

Did Assemblywoman Stender try to obtain a contract for her husband?

The content of this newsletter is controlled by the County's Public Information Department. The Union County Watchdog Association (UCWA) argues that the UC Democratic Committee should reimburse the taxpayers for the cost of the newsletters, which are mailed to every postal patron twice a year just days before the primary and general elections, which we believe is a violation of Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) laws.

Mike Murray, who is now the president of the Union County Alliance was originally the director of public information for the county. Just as the current head of public information does, Murray made sure that the candidates up for re-election would be prominently displayed throughout the newsletter. The newsletter would be designed and redesigned to make sure that the Democratic party's selected candidates would be featured. Not only the freeholder candidates but those who could use help in their campaign in local elections as well.

For instance the two covers below show how the Summer 2002 issue of Directions was originally designed and then as it was actually printed. Note that the three freeholders that appear on the cover were the ones who were up for re-election that year. Freeholder Proctor needed a little extra boost since he was running as an incumbent by being appointed to fill a vacancy as most current sitting freeholders were.

Also note how the County of Union removed their name as co-publishers.

Original cover design featuring Senior Citizens:

Cover changed to feature campaigning freeholders:

This is the second in a series of findings. Previously reported:

Rubbing out a Freeholder

When sitting Freeholder Don Goncalves was up for re-election in 1999, he had fallen out of favor with the Union County Democratic Committee and did not get their support for the party line. His image was digitally removed from a photograph that appeared in the Directions Newsletter. This was done so it would not give Goncalves any publicity that may have helped his campaign. The before-and-after photos appear below.

Original photo of incumbent Democrat candidates for Freeholder Chester Holmes, Assembly Candidate Linda Stender, Freeholder Don Goncalves and Union County Alliance Director and Kean University president Henry Ross.

The photo as it appeared in the Directions Newsletter which was mailed to every postal patron before the election with Freeholder Don Goncalves rubbed out. Goncalves’ arm was made to look like it belonged to Ross.

Political campaign mail: An important trust

According to a Postal bulletin dated 10/19/00: (See Bulletin) Any material accepted for mailing at first-Class or Standard Mail (A) postage rates that is mailed for political campaign purposes by a registered political candidate, campaign committee, or committee of a political party is classified as a political campaign mailing.

The Union County Directions Newsletter is sent out tagged “Political” which is a postal designation to ensure campaign mailings get delivered prior to Election Day.

The production of the newsletter, its content and timing is politically motivated as stories and design elements focus on selective candidates. This included a guarantee the newsletter be delivered prior to the day of election. (See guarantee)

A letter to the Elizabeth Post Master from the Union County Alliance asks for a refund of monies in a joint account the Alliance controlled with the County of Union. This account is still being used for the Directions mailings. (See letter)

Even though the Fall 2001 newsletter was produced and ready to go to press the county did not print and mail it because it wouldn’t arrive in mailboxes until after the election.

County Mouthpiece calls mother “Wicked” girlscout “Evil”
The story on the cover of the June 2002 Directions Newsletter featured veterans receiving their high school diplomas. They had to leave high school to serve their country During World War II. A Westfield High School junior selflessly toiled on the project in order to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award.

Aside from using her work to promote campaigning freeholders, did the county appreciate this girl's work?

In an e-mail copied to several employees, including the county manager and deputy county manager, then County Public Information Director Michael Murray writes:

"I was at the last meetings, including the 'emergency meeting' with the evil Girl Scout, her wicked mother and the muted troop leader."

Did any county management defend the girl?

County Manager George Devanney responds to Murray's email:

"OK then, how about just snacks……all in favor????"

View Email

Below: Cover featuring three photos of veterans who served their country during war and five photos of campaigning freeholders. There are no girl scouts mentioned or pictured on the cover. They aren't mentioned until paragraph 13 on page 11. Which is seven paragraphs after Freeholder Mingo states, "I was very proud that I helped bring about today's events...: