Pay-to-Play Litigation Drama Spills Into Council Chambers
Things got heated at times during Monday's Gloucester Township Council meeting.
The tension in Gloucester Township Council Chambers was palpable when an active Democrat stepped to the microphone Monday night to ask the township attorney questions about a resident's claims a conservative watchdog group duped her into signing its controversial initiative petition last year.
Blenheim resident and businesswoman Amy Tarves—a Gloucester Township Municipal Utilities Authority commissioner, Blenheim Fire Co. Board of Commissioners secretary, and a township representative on the Camden County Democratic Party Committee—appeared before Council with a copy of the affidavit signed by Joanne Stallworth Holmes.
The affidavit pertains to South Jersey Citizens' petition drive for a pay-to-play reform ordinance.
"Ms. Holmes states that the petition was not a petition named 'Public Contracting Reform Ordinance,' but rather it was presented to her with the heading 'Petition for Youth Program,' along with the language pertaining to the construction of a youth center," Tarves said.
Holmes claimed in the affidavit that she was presented the petition form by former township councilwoman Crystal Evans—a registered Democrat who fell out of favor with her party after supporting Gov. Chris Christie in his bid to unseat former governor Jon Corzine in 2009—sometime in the summer of 2011.
The petition form South Jersey Citizens (SJC) submitted to Township Clerk Rosemary DiJosie earlier this year was signed not by Evans as its circulator, but by Tom Crone, SJC's executive director, Tarves noted.
"The petition has been altered in both form and content since it left (Holmes') possession with the names, residences and signatures," Tarves asserted. "She returned the petition to Crystal Evans and did not hear anything further until it was brought to her attention that her signature was part of petition entitled 'Public Contracting Reform Ordinance.'"
Holmes did not show up for either of two hearings held in Camden, on June 8 and July 10, before Superior Court Judge Louis Meloni.
SJC agreed to withdraw the Holmes-signed-and-circulated petition at the June 8 hearing, acknowledging it should not have been submitted, but not admitting to any wrongdoing.
"The committee of petitioners agreed that the affidavit and the affidavit petition was suspect. They indicated they had no part of the allegation contained therein," Solicitor David Carlamere told Tarves Monday night, "but they felt that it should be removed, and at the Superior Court level that petition...was removed from consideration in the total number of petitions that were signed."
Township officials and SJC both acknowledge the Holmes affidavit and other documents, including those related to up to four other residents' affidavits pertaining to the SJC petition drive, were passed on to the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.
That pretty much marks the end of the agreement between the two sides with regard to the sworn legal statements.
Carlamere, who forwarded the Holmes affidavit to the prosecutor's office, indicated he is unaware of the status of county investigators' review of the document, with its allegations of "petition switching and false swearing."
"I don't believe the township has received any response from the county prosecutor's office as to the status of their review," he said.
SJC political director Josh Berry strongly disputed there is an ongoing investigation into his group's actions, as Carlamere seemed to be implying.
"We are not under investigation, and we never were," he said. "Everyone we've spoken to about this—private attorneys, prosecutors in other towns, politicians in other towns—they all say the same thing: 'This is a political vendetta, and it's going nowhere. Don't worry about it. It may get uncomfortable for a while, but you don't have to worry about it.'"
Berry also questioned why Tarves and a Courier-Post reporter have copies of the Holmes affidavit when his Open Public Records Act requests for it have been rejected.
Three Gloucester Township residents—Crystal Cooper, Ann Marie Lash and Raymond Lowe—testified before Meloni on July 10 that they either didn’t sign the petition, in Cooper’s case, or the person named as circulator on the petition wasn’t present when they signed. A fourth person, Kimberly Jones, made similar statements in an affidavit, but did not testify.
John Schmidt, of Gloucester City, on Monday questioned the manner in which the five residents came to sign affidavits, reiterating claims made during the July 10 hearing that Democratic Party leaders, including township chairman Kevin Piccolo, had contacted them.
He and Berry stoked Carlamere's ire when they mentioned the solicitor's wife, Cindy, an active Democrat, as part of the affidavit effort.
"Mrs. Lash had said 'Marianne Coyle and Cindy,' and Mr. Carlamere, at that point, jumped up and ran in front of the table and cut her off (in order to make an objection)," Berry said.
Carlamere angrily disputed Berry's recollection, countering that he looked forward to reviewing the hearing transcript that "your attorney has not provided us yet."
"We'll read that transcript, and we'll see what it says. I'm going to tell you, you better be just a little bit careful about what you're stating, because it's not true," Carlamere said.
SJC, a group consisting mostly of conservative Gloucester Township residents, filed a lawsuit against Township Clerk Rosemary DiJosie in April after the clerk twice denied the group's pay-to-play petition on Carlamere's legal advice.
That lawsuit led to the two hearings before Meloni, who threw out more than 200 signatures in ruling in favor of the township's claim SJC did not properly remedy notarization issues with several forms that initially had been authenticated by a Pennsylvania notary public—a violation of New Jersey petition laws.
SJC is currently appealing that decision, with hopes it will get its ordinance before Council and, if necessary, onto the ballot in November. It needs 1,047 certified signatures.
With the burden on the township to show that state petition statutes had been violated in regard to the Lash, Cooper, Lowe and Jones affidavits, Meloni said he found the SJC witnesses’ accounts more credible.
Gloucester Township Council has introduced its own pay-to-play reform ordinance. It targets super PACs.
Council pulled its pay-to-play ordinance from consideration Monday night amid reports Democrats are circulating their own petition. The governing body unanimously approved the measure on first reading July 9.