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Fire Commissioner Fined $2,500 For ‘Willful’ Violation Of State OPRA; District Must Pay $15K In Attorney’s Fees

Second violation for commissioner; District ordered to pay attorney’s fees

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Jeffrey Carter was seeking financial documents from Fire District No. 1.
Photo: Centenary College

A state panel has ordered a township Fire Commissioner to pay $2,500 and his Fire District nearly $15,000 in fines for “willfully and knowingly” violating the state’s Open Public Records Act.

The Government Records Council made the Dec. 18 ruling against William Kleiber, a Fire Commissioner with Fire District 2 and that district’s former designated public records custodian, in a case brought by former township policeman and Fire District 1 Commissioner Jeffrey Carter.

The decision stems from a Dec. 22, 2011 complaint filed by Carter, who was seeking documents legally known as “warrants” – documents signed by three commissioners authorizing a particular expenditure – in relation to the district’s IT company, Network Blade for the years 2007 through 2011. Carter initially asked for the documents on Dec. 8, 2011.

Network Blade is owned by state Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D-17), the township Democratic Party chairman and a former District 1 Fire Commissioner. Danielsen declined to comment.

According to GRC records, Kleiber and the district’s attorney, Eric Perkins, initially denied that the district had any “warrants.” Carter proved this was not the case when he supplied the GRC with copies of checks co-signed by three District 2 Commissioners. Those checks qualified as warrants under the law.

The GRC initially ruled against Carter, but reconsidered and then sent the case to Administrative Law Judge Linda M. Kassekert. Kassekert held a hearing on June 3, 2014.

In her Aug. 8, 2014 order, Judge Kassekert wrote that the conduct of Kleiber and Perkins “in maintaining that there were no warrants and then in providing information that was not responsive to the petitioner’s request, was more than ‘negligent, heedless or unintentional.’ ”

“As pointed out by petitioner’s counsel, a check does not have to say “check” on it for one to know it is a check,” Kessekert wrote. “Petitioner’s request for the documents used to pay bills that were signed by three commissioners, as required by statute, regardless of what those documents were called, is certainly not that complex that the custodian or his counsel should not have been able to determine what it was that the petitioner was looking for.”

“As a result, based on the totality of the circumstances, it is clear to me that his conduct in responding to this OPRA request was intentional and deliberate,” she wrote.

Kessekert ordered that the district pay $14,598 in attorney’s fees plus $385 in costs.

Kleibert was ordered to pay a $2,500 fine – out of his own pocket – because this was the second time in 10 years he had been found to have “willfully and knowingly” violated the state’s OPRA law. The first time was related to an earlier request filed by Carter.

Carter said he filed the OPRA request “to make sure they were dispersing funds consistent with the statutes” requiring three signatures on the warrants or, in this case, checks.

“After receiving the warrant/check records a year and one-half after they were first requested, and only after the GRC ordered their disclosure, they revealed compliance with N.J.S.A. 40A:14-89’s three signature requirement,” Carter said in an email. “What is grossly absurd about the Fire District’s knowing and willful conduct, is that Commissioner Kleiber (as a veteran fire district treasurer); his attorney Mr. Perkins (who serves as a municipal court judge in another town); and the Fire District’s auditor all claimed that the Fire District did not use ‘warrants’ consistent with N.J.S.A. 40A:14-89. If that were true, it would mean that the Fire District was unlawfully dispersing public funds without following N.J.S.A. 40A:14-89.”

“The decision was appropriate,” Carter said. “That’s exactly why the GRC sent this to the Office of Administrative Law, so we could have an independent Administrative Law Judge hear the testimony. She very clearly found that Commissioner Kleiber had no credibility.”

Carter said the “true losers” in this case are township taxpayers.

“They have spent tens of thousands of dollars because of the deliberate and intentional conduct of their elected officials, who they have put in there to prevent this from happening,” he said. “This is truly sad.”

Representatives from Dire District 1 did not respond to a request for comment.

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