Freeholder candidate Van Doren admits role in govt data breach

“They weighed about 40 pounds apiece.” said Tewksbury Township Committeeman Peter Melick about two boxes of confidential municipal personnel files he and someone else carried out of the government building on April 27, 2017. It was the biggest government record data breach in Tewksbury’s history.

After helping engineer the removal of the records, Committeeman Shaun Van Doren, a candidate for Hunterdon County Freeholder in the November 8, 2017 election, admitted afterwards:

“In hindsight was it the appropriate thing to do? No it wasn’t.”

Van Doren added:

“It came out of the conversation that occurred, there wasn’t any intent, there wasn’t anything nefarious.”

Peter Melick explains it

“Well, I can explain the whole thing,” Melick stated at the May 16, 2017 Committee meeting where Van Doren made the statements cited above. “Shaun and I met with Jess, I forget the exact date, just prior to his leaving.” That’s town Administrator Jesse Landon he was referring to.

According to statements of Tewksbury officials on the audio recording of that public meeting (scroll down to end for full recording), Van Doren, Melick, Landon and town attorney Michael Selvaggi were responsible for the biggest breach of government data in Tewksbury’s history.

The justification

Why did they plan and execute removal of all the private personnel files of all Tewksbury employees past and current? How did they justify it?

It was Landon’s last day at work. He had resigned his post on March 24, right after an “Internal Investigation” was completed. (See “Tewksbury residents angry over moved files,” Hunterdon Review, for details.)

Melick and Van Doren explained that, with the Administrator leaving his job for good that day, there was no one to keep the personnel records secure.

“…we didn’t want to leave them in a place where anybody coming in could look at anybody else’s personnel file and you’d have accusations of that nature. That’s what we’re trying to guard against,” said Melick.

“The custodian of the records is the clerk, no matter whether you have an administrator or don’t have one. Any records that the town has, especially personnel records, they should be keeping at the municipal building, or at the location where they keep their records, not in someone’s personal possession. Nothing should be taken off site.” – Joel Popkin, Executive Director, NJ Clerk’s Association

But Tewksbury’s long-time Clerk, Roberta Brassard, was present that day. According to New Jersey statute, she’s the custodian of records. Apparently the Gang of 4 never thought of that. They reportedly never consulted her.

There was no reason to remove the files to secure them. Their legal custodian was Brassard.

N.J.S.A. 40A:9-133.e.: “The municipal clerk shall: (1) act as secretary of the municipal corporation and custodian of the municipal seal and of all minutes, books, deeds, bonds, contracts, and archival records of the municipal corporation…”

They remove the files to Melick’s home

The point was to move the files where no one would be able to peek at anyone else’s confidential personnel file. So they moved them to Melick’s home.

Said Melick:

“Jess said there was no key for personnel filing cabinet. So I said what are we going to do with them. So because I’m around during the day he said, well, I’ll call you or whatever. I said call Dana [Desiderio] because she’s the mayor. She was away so she couldn’t do it. So I said I’ll take them and secure them in my office… my home office, business office.”

Van Doren to Melick: “Why don’t you take them?”

Said Van Doren:

“I didn’t authorize him to do it.”

But Van Doren also said:

“We had a discussion and I trust the concern that if the office is going to need to be left open so that employees could get access to other files they needed, that they didn’t have access to those files. That was when it came up in the conversation, well why don’t you take them and hold them until the appropriate time when they could be transferred to his successor. In hindsight was it the appropriate thing to do? No it wasn’t. It came out of the conversation that occurred, there wasn’t any intent, there wasn’t anything nefarious.”

The Gang

Jesse Landon, a seasoned professional, has (according to his resume) a Master of Public Administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He’s a Graduate Fellow at the Public Administration Institute and is affiliated with the New Jersey Municipal Management Association. He was Tewksbury’s Administrator for over 17 years.

Landon is clearly someone who knows the law and the rules about municipal records.

Peter Melick is a scion of the Melick family, whose father, George Melick, is renowned as the longest-serving freeholder in New Jersey history. Peter Melick has been tutored in politics and government all his life. He is also an experienced Committee member of almost a decade.

Shaun Van Doren has served on the Committee for 20 years and. He  was tapped by Patrick Torpey, Chairman of the Hunterdon Republican Committee, to run unopposed for freeholder in the June Primary. Van Doren is on the ballot for the November 8 election.

These two seasoned elected public officials surely know the law and the rules about government records.

Files were turned over by Landon

Yet Melick and Van Doren justified a government record data breach, and stood by as Landon did something that doesn’t seem to make  sense. To enable the removal 80 pounds of Tewksbury personnel files that were in Administrator Landon custody, Landon wrote a memo to the Committee which he had Melick sign.

Landon officially turned the records over to Melick. (Complete memo.)

Authorized by the attorney

“So I called Michael [Selvaggi], our attorney, told him what we were doing. He said okay so I took them.” – Peter Melick

(Attorney Michael Selvaggi said later that he “misunderstood.” He didn’t realize “all of the personnel files were going to be carted out.” He thought he was giving the okay to remove just one personnel record.)

Melick signed for receipt of the records at “14:47 hours” on April 27 and admitted he moved them down to his vehicle. He claims he drove them to his “home office, business office.” Yet at the October 10 Committee meeting, no one could provide any proof about where Melick went, or about his claim that he did not open the boxes.

No official authorization

At the May 16 Committee meeting, everyone admitted that no one but attorney Selvaggi gave any authorization to remove the personnel records:

Mayor Dana Desiderio: “I didn’t tell him to give the files to anyone.”

Asked if the Committee as a whole gave authorization, Deputy Mayor Louis DiMare said: “For the record, I don’t think we did.”

Shaun Van Doren: “I didn’t authorize him to do it.”

N.J.S.A. 2C:28-7, “Tampering with public records or information,” states: “A person commits an offense if he:… (3) Purposely and unlawfully… removes… or otherwise impairs the verity or availability of any such record, document or thing.”

What happened to the files?

What happened to the files is a long story that was discussed at length at the October 10, 2017 Committee meeting, reported in the Hunterdon Review, October, 12, 2017, “Tewksbury residents angered over moved files.” (The article includes full audio of the proceedings.)

Committeeman Shaun Van Doren was noticeably absent from his own Committee meeting — the last public meeting prior to the Freeholder election. Questions were asked about his role in the data breach, but he wasn’t there to answer.

Allegedly — according to comments made by town officials — the files included a copy of the “Internal Investigation Report” produced by special counsel for the Committee. The report was allegedly placed in Landon’s personnel file — and the report and/or file were allegedly missing when the personnel records were returned to the municipal building.

According to a Tewksbury insider who spoke anonymously because they are not authorized to discuss the matter, the records that were removed — to Melick’s “home office” — included personnel files of Tewksbury police officers.

Van Doren gives Landon a bonus

Four months after Landon left his job, on July 11, 2017 the Tewksbury Committee considered a motion made by Shaun Van Doren — who with Melick is the Finance Committee — to authorize a “merit pay bonus” of 1% for all municipal employees, retroactive to cover 2016.

After a lengthy discussion, Mayor Dana Desiderio said she would vote to approve the bonuses only if Committeeman Van Doren, who made the motion, would modify his motion to “exclude Jess Landon” from the bonus payments. Van Doren refused and stridently argued that Landon was not terminated but resigned and deserved the bonus.

Desiderio voted against the measure and explained her vote:

“I don’t give credit for poor behavior.”

The measure passed 3-2 with DiMare also opposed.

What happened to the guy who turned over the records?

On February 22, 2017. just six days after Administrator Jesse Landon was interviewed by Tewksbury’s special investigator, the Clinton Township Council “authorized [Mayor John Higgins] to make an offer to Mr. Landon and draw up an employment letter.”

The offer was for the job of Administrator.

On February 27, 11 days after being interviewed by the investigator, and a month before the “Internal Investigation” in Tewksbury was completed, Landon was given a written job offer for the position of Township Administrator, signed by Clinton Township Mayor John Higgins, at a salary of $132,000, a $4,000 raise.

In a March 29, 2017 article, the Hunterdon Review reported:

Higgins said, “Mr. Landon understands how things work in Hunterdon County” and “He was a superior candidate. We’re very happy to have him on board.”

Clinton Township’s official Personnel Policy requires that:

“Applications for positions as advertised shall be made on forms supplied by the township and filed with the Municipal Clerk.”

An OPRA request filed with the Clinton Township Clerk for a copy of Landon’s job application was answered with a statement that no application exists.

What happened to Shaun Van Doren?

As noted above, Committeeman Shaun Van Doren is campaigning for a seat on the Hunterdon County Freeholder Board in the November 8 election.

Full meeting recording

This official recording was obtained from Tewksbury Township, which records but does not publish meeting recordings. Recordings may be obtained by filing a N.J. Open Public Records Act request.

It’s worth noting that the Freeholders do not publish their meeting recordings, either. Unlike Tewksbury, which maintains an archive of recordings, the Freeholders destroy their meeting recordings after 90 days.

That’s how things work as you move up the political ladder in Hunterdon County.

Key facts presented in this column would never have been discovered if Hunterdon’s municipalities destroyed their meeting recordings after 90 days like the Freeholders do.

One might say of Mr. Van Doren’s qualifications for Freeholder:

“Mr. Van Doren understands how things work in Hunterdon County.”

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