December 17, 2009

 

Inspector's status has Glo. Twp. in limbo

By JANE ROH
Courier-Post Staff

A Gloucester Township building inspector accused of ethics violations is awaiting a final decision on the revocation of his license.

In the meantime, township officials are not saying if Bernard Shepard, a construction code official and 20-year employee, is still performing his inspection duties or if he has been sidelined in any way. Shepherd's attorney said he assumes his client is still on the job.

An investigation by the state's Department of Community Affairs found in August 2008 that Shepherd had violated conflict of interest rules.

In 2003 and 2004, Shepherd approved construction on 17 homes built by K. Hovnanian while the Red Bank, Monmouth County-based builder performed work on his Harrison Township home. New Jersey law prohibits construction officials from carrying out inspection or enforcement duties involving businesses or properties with which they, their supervisors, or family members have a financial relationship.

The revocation order from the Office of Regulatory Affairs, the DCA's enforcement arm, does not specify the arrangement between Shepherd and K. Hovnanian -- how much Shepherd paid the firm or if he paid them at all.

Shepard, who declined to comment, appealed and the case has yet to be resolved, leaving Shepherd and the township in limbo for the past 16 months.

Any discussions on Shepherd by township staff and council have been behind closed doors because of the active status of the case, officials said.

Indeed, Shepherd is barely mentioned in township documents or on the township's Web site.

"The day-to-day operations of the township fall under the executive branch of the government," said Orlando Mercado, council vice president.

He said he hadn't been briefed on Shepherd's status, nor had council requested a briefing by administrators.

"I know the administration is responsible for him," said Dan Hutchison, another council member. He said pending ORA's final judgment, town council would consult with the solicitor on its options.

Shepherd has been under investigation since at least 2005. But it's unclear how the township handled the matter, or what their options were -- if any -- with regard to his employment.

Mayor Cindy Rau-Hatton, who leaves office next month, referred all queries to township solicitor Dave Carlamere.

"I was called into a meeting with then-Mayor Sandy Love and the police chief to discuss the issue of Bernie Shepherd sometime in 2005 or 2006. They informed me that there was an investigation at the Camden County Prosecutor's Office that involved him," Carlamere recalled. "They addressed some of the issues and instructed confidentiality. The then-council was also briefed and instructed confidentiality."

"We were later advised the county prosecutor decided to send the case to the Department of Community Affairs with their recommendations, and the matter would be handled as an administrative affair with regard to his license," Carlamere continued.

He said he had not been asked to explore what disciplinary actions could be taken against Shepherd.

Though Rau-Hatton referred most questions to Carlamere, she did indicate that she feared disciplining or firing Shepherd before the appeal's outcome could expose the town to a costly lawsuit.

It's also not clear that the DCA advises municipalities on how to handle such matters.

Greg Farrington, a construction official in Cranbury, said the DCA did not notify him when an electrical code inspector there had a license revoked in 2008. The inspector, who was able to negotiate a suspension and still works for several townships, informed Farrington himself.

"I can't have him working here without a license," Farrington said. Though the license wasn't pertinent to the work the inspector did for Cranbury, Farrington complained that the DCA still should have informed him. Asked what he'd have done if the official was in Shepherd's situation, Farrington said, "I wouldn't do anything without the township attorney's advice."

Further muddying the waters is the fact that the judge's decision next year may not even be binding. Shepherd's appeal kicked the case over to the Office of Administrative Law, an independent body that resolves disputes over agency decisions. Spokeswoman Randye Bloom said that the office first received Shepherd's case on Nov. 20, 2008, and that it had been slowed by adjournments due to scheduling conflicts and other immaterial events.

Attorney Frank Crivelli, who is representing Shepherd, said his client's hopes did not hang entirely on the judgment by an independent arbiter.

"Unfortunately the DCA could completely ignore the judge's determination if they want," the Hamilton-based attorney said. He added that whether Shepherd had in fact violated ethics laws hinged on statutory interpretation.

Bloom confirmed that the appeals process runs on a separate track from the DCA's original investigation. The DCA's counsel may choose to be involved in the OAL process, but "generally the agency is not involved in the case."

The ORA has stripped five officials of their licenses so far this year, said DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan. Unlike Shepherd's case, four of those violations were criminal. Four licenses were formally revoked in 2008.

If ORA's 2008 decision stands and Shepherd formally loses his license, he will no longer be permitted to work as an inspector in New Jersey.

According to business administrator Tom Cardis, Shepherd's 2009 salary was $80,730.65, and his family health plan costs the township an additional $19,000, Cardis estimated.

Municipal solicitor Carlamere said he could not speculate on what Gloucester Township might do if Shepherd's license is ultimately revoked.

"Depending on how the order is given in Trenton, and depending on the effective date of his revocation, we'll have to address that issue at that time," he said.

Councilman Hutchison said after the final judgment is made on Shephard's license, the township council would consult with the solicitor on its options.

Reach Jane Roh at (856) 486-2919 or jroh@gannett.com