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UPDATED: Administrative Law Judge Will Hear Eight Ethics Complaints Against School Board President

School ethics Commission dismisses one complaint, forwards the rest.

juliapresley

Board of Education president Julia Presley

Updated with response from Julia Presley.

Eight ethics complaints filed against Board of Education president Julia Presley by three board members and a former elementary school principal will be heard by an Administrative Law Judge.

The state Department of Education’s School Ethics Commission on Oct. 29 adopted recommendations from its Sept. 24 meeting to forward the complaints – filed by board members Robert Trautman, Delvin Burton and Richard Seamon and former Pine Grove Manor School principal Rose Abreu – to the Office of Administrative Law.

Presley and Seamon are running for re-election in Tuesday’s general election.

A seventh charge in the board members’ complaints – that Presley violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act – was dismissed, commission chairperson Robert Bender said in a letter to  the three complainants, because the commission does not have jurisdiction over state statutes.

The commission also voted to dismiss Presley’s motion to dismiss all of the complaints.

Bender’s letter said that the facts alleged in the board members’ complaints “may be sufficient to support potential violations.”

The case will be transmitted to the OAL after Presley files a response, which is due near the end of November, according to the letter.

The three board members filed the complaints on June 12, 2013, according to Bender’s letter. The members alleged that Presley violated the “Code of Ethics for School Board Members” contained in the state’s “School Ethics Act,” N.J.S.A. 18A-24.1.

Specifically, the trio alleged that Presley violated the following sections of 18A-24.1:

(c) No school official shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he, a member of his immediate family, or a business organization in which he has an interest, has a direct or indirect financial involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment. No school official shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he or a member of his immediate family has a personal involvement that is or creates some benefit to the school official or member of his immediate family;

(d) No school official shall undertake any employment or service, whether compensated or not, which might reasonably be expected to prejudice his independence of judgment in the exercise of his official duties;

(e) No school official, or member of his immediate family, or business organization in which he has an interest, shall solicit or accept any gift, favor, loan, political contribution, service, promise of future employment, or other thing of value based upon an understanding that the gift, favor, loan, contribution, service, promise, or other thing of value was given or offered for the purpose of influencing him, directly or indirectly, in the discharge of his official duties.  This provision shall not apply to the solicitation or acceptance of contributions to the campaign of an announced candidate for elective public office, if the school official has no knowledge or reason to believe that the campaign contribution, if accepted, was given with the intent to influence the school official in the discharge of his official duties;

(f) No school official shall use, or allow to be used, his public office or employment, or any information, not generally available to the members of the public, which he receives or acquires in the course of and by reason of his office or employment, for the purpose of securing financial gain for himself, any member of his immediate family, or any business organization with which he is associated;

(g) No school official or business organization in which he has an interest shall represent any person or party other than the school board or school district in connection with any cause, proceeding, application or other matter pending before the school district in which he serves or in any proceeding involving the school district in which he serves  or, for officers or employees of the New Jersey School Boards Association, any school district. This provision shall not be deemed to prohibit representation within the context of official labor union or similar representational responsibilities;

(h) No school official shall be deemed in conflict with these provisions if, by reason of his participation in any matter required to be voted upon, no material or monetary gain accrues to him as a member of any business, profession, occupation or group, to any greater extent than any gain could reasonably be expected to accrue to any other member of that business, profession, occupation or group;

(i) No elected member shall be prohibited from making an inquiry for information on behalf of a constituent, if no fee, reward or other thing of value is promised to, given to or accepted by the member or a member of his immediate family, whether directly or indirectly, in return therefore.

The charges were summarized in Bender’s letter.

In Count 1, the complainants alleged that Presley “directed” schools Superintendent to not cut a course called “keyboard honors” because “her granddaughter worked hard for her ‘musical standing’,” according to the letter. “Moreover, the Superintendent felt pressure to comply since his contract was ending, and he was facing review.”

In Count 2, the three alleged that a friend of Presley’s sent an “inappropriate” email to the board, criticizing Seto and other members for abolishing a vacant position, but, they said, Presley refused requests to tell her friend to stop, according to Bender’s letter.

The three alleged that at the March 21, 2012 meeting Presley “was not interested” in the proceedings until the matter of the vacant position arose, at which time she “demanded that other items be eliminated instead.”

In Count 3, they alleged that Presley did not support a new principal when she asked that the principal’s name be removed from consideration for reappointment.

In Count 4, the three alleged that Presley ordered Seto to pull from a meeting’s agenda any transfers from Pine Grove Manor School without consulting the board.

In Count 5, the trio alleged that at the May 30, 2012 meeting, after a board member said she had to leave early, Presley “requested a motion to move the personnel discussion to the first item to sway the vote,” according to the letter. They also alleged that Presley said during the public portion of that meeting that she’d “demanded” a transition plan for Pine Grove Manor after Abreu resigned, “but that she had not discussed this with the entire board, nor did it request the plan.”

In Count 6, they alleged that Presley “denigrated the Superintendent and his administration in an email response to a member of the public” who had asked why an agenda had been changed.

Bender said in the letter that in her response to the complaints, Presley maintained that the trio “failed to assert the origin of the facts” in one count, “and failed to set forth sufficiently, if at all, how the Code was violated in any of the counts.”

The commission in its deliberations “shall review the facts in the light most favorable to the complainant and determine whether the allegation(s) set forth in the complaint, if true, could establish a violation of the Act,” Bender said in his letter.

“The commission finds that if the complainants can show that (Presley’s) conduct and actions violated the Code as set forth in the regulations, then they will have met their burden of proof.”

Education department spokesman Mike Yaple said on Nov. 1 that the vote did not constitute a decision on the complaints.

The Administrative Law Judge, he said will hear the case and make a decision, which will then be forwarded back to the commission. The commission can then decide to adopt, modify or reject the ALJ’s decision.

Any penalty – ranging from reprimand to censure to suspension or removal – will be decided by the state Commissioner of Education, he said.

Abreu resigned from her position as Pine Grove Manor School principal in May, 2013, less than a year after she had been hired. The principal came under intense criticism from parents, who claimed she bullied staff, among other things.

Yaple said Abreu filed three counts against Presley, and that two of the counts were sent to the ALJ, while one was dismissed. He said he did not have specific information on Abreu’s complaints.

In an emailed response, Presley said that she would not speak specifically to the allegations, but that “According to my attorney, as to the School Ethics Decision recently released, the Commission made no substantive determinations but rather applied a broad standard determining generally if the complainants’ can prove their allegations before an administrative law judge in a full hearing, then there maybe a potential violation of the code of ethics.”

“Operative statements and words, ‘If the complaints’ can prove their allegations’, and ‘there may be’.” Presley said in her statement. “So you see, the allegations pending against me are just that, allegations, until heard and adjudicated by the OAL.  There is still a long way to go before a decision is made concerning any of these false complaints.  It could take up to two years to determine if and when they rise to the level of probable cause.  So, until that time, the allegations against me have no merit! And when all is said and done can be determined to have no merit and be dismissed.”

Presley’s full statement can be viewed here.

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