DCA exonerates Mike Wright, upholds violations, slams HCCBA for conflict of interest

When Harmen Vos ran for mayor of Clinton Township, and later for town council, Vos and his supporters attacked Clinton Township construction code official Mike Wright, accusing him of improper actions in his professional capacity.

Complaints filed with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) alleged harrassment, selective enforcement, over enforcement, misconduct, and failure to perform or issue timely inspections or certificates of occupancy.

Vos and his supporters claimed Wright’s actions reflected bad management on the part of Mayor Kevin Cimei, Administrator Marvin Joss, and the town council. The attacks included vicious letters to the editor by Vos and others.

Now it’s been revealed that the complaints were politically motivated — and unfounded. And an investigation has revealed conflict of interest in the Hunterdon County agency that oversees construction inspections.

In a May 1, 2012 report from the DCA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs, John H. Maher and Terrence Luckie found that “the allegations cannot be substantiated.”

Wright not guilty, County Construction Board of Appeals slammed

The 28-page DCA report makes interesting reading.

The main findings:

1. Mike Wright is not guilty of any wrongdoing.

2. The DCA’s own Code Assistance Unit caused Wright to incorrectly enforce the code.
When Wright requested guidance, the CAU gave Wright wrong instructions about how to handle the issuance of a permit, resulting in Wright incorrectly enforcing the code. This is one of two errors the DCA found in this case. (p. 2 of report)

3. The DCA reveals that the Hunterdon County Construction Board of Appeals (HCCBA) has been misbehaving.
The DCA sternly reprimanded the HCCBA and revealed shocking details of conflict of interest, and improper use of a “written appeal decision” to harrass and intimidate Wright. (p. 4)

4. The DCA revealed Edward O’Brien, head of the Hunterdon County Construction Board of Appeals, had a conflict of interest when he asked Wright to “abate or reduce the violations that were levied against Mr. Wade’s property.” O’Brien was also Michael Wade’s architect, and when Wright filed a conflict of interest complaint against O’Brien with the county prosecutor, O’Brien in his official capacity reprimanded Wright for it in the HCCBA’s written appeal decision. (p. 4)

5. The DCA noted that as a result of the O’Brien reprimand against Wright, “the board [HCCBA] has potentially opened itself to being viewed as possibly bias [sic] towards Mr. Wright…” (p. 4)

6. The DCA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs ordered HCCBA chief O’Brien to recuse himself.
Louis Mraw of the ORA “confirmed O’Brien’s comments to Wright [asking for special treatment for O’Brien’s client Wade] and instructed Mr. O’Brien to recuse himself from the HCCBA hearings or to have the venue moved to another county to be heard.” In other words, the DCA apparently took O’Brien off the Wright case because O’Brien apparently tried to use his position on the HCCBA to get favors from Wright on behalf of his (O’Brien’s) client. (p. 3)

7. The DCA further reprimanded the HCCBA.
The DCA investigators emphasized  that “All other unrelated issues [Wright’s complaint to the prosecutor] should not have been entertained by the board, and especially not being addressed in their written appeal decision.” (p. 4)

8. Complaints from Michael Wade were found to have no substance.
Regarding the violations on Wade’s construction project cited by Wright, the DCA reports that “Wade admitted that the work did commence without the permits.” Wade’s company (Bourbon Street Liquors, aka ROCK U LLC) was a contributor to Harmen Vos’s election campaign. (p. 3)

9. Complaints from Alex Patullo were found to have no substance.
The DCA found that work Patullo did on “the 3 new units started without the proper Construction permits” and that “the upper units were framed out, again with no permits,” in addition to other construction code violations. A Patullo Powerwash was a contributor to Harmen Vos’s election campaign. (p. 27)

10. Complaints from Chuck Urban relating to his bank construction project revealed work done without permits.
One of the complaints investigated by the DCA was about Wright’s inspections of “a newly constructed bank” at 178 Center Street, a project owned by local developer Chuck Urban. The DCA instructed Wright about how to do “a partial release” permit, but revealed that “The Partial Release sections of the application were not filled in by the applicant,” and that’s why Wright hadn’t released the permit. But Urban’s complaint triggered further revelations about other violations at the bank project. The DCA reports: “After the permits were issued, the complainant conducted additional… work without the required permits.” Not content with that, the DCA added further remonstrations: “It appears that this complainant has a problem following the procedures for obtaining building permits before starting the work.” An employee of Chuck Urban’s company was a $1,000 contributor to Harmen Vos’s election. (p. 21)

11. One error found due to Wright.
The only error by Wright that DCA found among all the complaints filed was that Wright “was unaware that he was able to released the code compliant plans…” but that the problem was “complicated by e-mails between the applicant and Mr. Wright…” It turns out that even in this one error, “The applicant did not clearly request that he only wanted the plans released and not the permit.” (p. 2)

Building inspector’s decisions upheld

While the DCA noted that fines issued by Mike Wright were always the highest permitted under the code, the DCA also pointed out that — contrary to complaints — Wright’s enforcement was not “selective.” The DCA reports that “No violations of the Uniform Construction Code could be substantiated.”

Patullo: “Harsh treatments… under shared services”

Campaigning for Harmen Vos for mayor, builder Alex Patullo wrote letters to the editor trashing Wright. In one, titled “Contractor urges residents to vote for Vos and end the ‘tyranny’ in Clinton Twp.,” Patullo wrote:

“Talk to the people of Lebanon Borough and they’ll tell you of the harsh treatments they’ve endured under a shared-services agreement at the hands of the Clinton Township building inspector, Mike Wright…

“Taxpayers collectively need to hold Mayor Cimei accountable for the malaise created by over-the-top regulations and harassment from Mr. Wright under the guise of ‘he’s just doing his job.’

“A vote for Cimei is a vote for Mike Wright and the tyranny that comes with them. Don’t make the same mistake twice. Vote Vos for mayor in Clinton Township.”
Democract, May 10, 2011

A resident of Bethlehem Township, Patullo contributed $1,000 to Vos’s campaign in Clinton Township in an effort to eliminate Patullo’s problems in Lebanon. It seems Patullo expected Vos would get rid of Wright and the shared services deal with Lebanon Borough, because Patullo didn’t like be cited for violations on his problematic construction. Now the DCA has gotten rid of Patullo’s complaints.

Not only were the complaints of Vos’s supporter about Wright found to be baseless — the DCA took the opportunity to point out that the real problem was the violations on the construction project. Wright was right.

Who? Me?Vos destroys $130,000 shared-services deal with Lebanon

Vos’s coordinated attacks on Mike Wright had one clear outcome: The false controversies generated by Vos’s supporters cost Clinton Township its long-time shared services contract with Lebanon Borough for building inspection services. Patullo got what he wanted — but not because Vos got elected. Patullo won because the smear campaign against Wright succeeded.

Patullo dragged then-mayor of Lebanon Mark Paradis into the fray. Paradis swallowed Patullo’s and Vos’s allegations hook, line, and sinker. The Hunterdon Democrat reported that:

“Lebanon Mayor Mark Paradis, who admits helping Patullo, complained that because of Wright, ‘developers are leery to build in our community’ and that he no longer supports sharing construction services with the township.”
December 8, 2011

Shortly thereafter, the shared services agreement — worth over $130,000 to Clinton Township taxpayers — was terminated by Lebanon. No comment has been issued by Lebanon Borough officials. A good relationship between the towns was destroyed by a political campaign of misinformation funded by Vos’s builder friends. The DCA has now confirmed that the allegations against Wright were bogus. But the smear campaign got Vos elected to the Clinton Township council.

Vos now complains that Clinton Township doesn’t have enough shared services deals.

Clinton Township residents pay

The costs to taxpayers don’t end there. Mike Wright also served as the township’s zoning officer, a position he held at a fraction of the cost for even a part-time professional. Although it was not a full-time role, Wright was available to handle zoning matters any time during the week. The baseless allegations against Clinton Township’s buildings inspector created an untenable political environment in the township. Responding to the resulting pressure, the Township replaced Wright as the zoning officer., This has resulted in additional costs to the township, and creates an inconvenience for citizens who now rely on the services of a part-time zoning officer.

Dirty politics

This is how dirty politics are played in Clinton Township. Baseless accusations repeated ad nauseum, covered by the press week after week without critical investigation of the facts. Clinton Township lost an important source of revenue and Vos tarnished the town’s reputation — and got elected. And taxpayers got fleeced. The accusers got off scot free.

The freeholders are on the hook

Ironically — and perhaps poetically — who is on the hook now are the Hunterdon County Freeholders. The big revelations in the DCA report are about the Hunterdon County Construction Board of Appeals.

The Hunterdon County Democrat, which reported that “State agency clears Clinton Township construction code officer of allegations against him,” didn’t touch the hottest part of the DCA report.

Under the noses of the Hunterdon freeholders, the DCA report tore into HCCBA Chairman Edward O’Brien, who was removed from the Wright case due to a “clear case of conflict of interest.” While acting as a builder’s architect O’Brien contacted Mike Wright — the code official who issued violations against O’Brien’s client Michael Wade — and asked Wright “to abate or reduce the violations.” The conflict was that O’Brien was also serving in his official capacity as Chairman of the body that overseas construction appeals.

The DCA reports that this event occurred in 2008! The freeholders have never launched an investigation, and O’Brien continues to run the HCCBA.

Not bad enough? When Wright did the right thing and complained to the county prosecutor’s office, O’Brien used the HCCBA’s “written appeal decision” to “admonish him [Wright] for doing so.” The DCA further implicated the entire HCCBA, noting that such “unrelated issues should not have been entertained by the board” and determined that the matter of Wright’s contacting the prosecutor should not have been “addressed in their written appeal decision.”

It seems the freeholders have an investigation of their own to conduct, into official misconduct and abuse of power by O’Brien and the HCCBA — something that affects all constituents throughout Hunterdon County.

Dirty politics come home to roost

In mounting a dirty campaign to discredit a local official through misinformation and innuendo, Harmen Vos and his supporters triggered a DCA investigation that exposed corruption in Hunterdon County government. Complaints about Mike Wright attracted scrutiny of the DCA — and revealed the extent of code violations committed by the complainants. Meanwhile, the target of their complaints was found to be clean and his inspection decisions justified.

The Clinton Township officials and boards tasked with creating, interpreting, and enforcing land use policy deserve a county appeals board that is beyond reproach. It’s now up to the Hunterdon County freeholders to investigate corruption in their own construction board. Will they do it, or brush it under the rug?

This is Hunterdon County — where anything goes until someone dares to take the lid off of it.

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