ELIZABETH, N.J. – An Elizabeth School Board member violated state ethics rules by accepting campaign money from a lawyer later appointed by the board, asserts a woman seeking election to the board.
The woman, Maria Lorenz, named board member José Rodriguez in the ethics complaint filed with the state School Ethics Commission. Rodriquez insists he did nothing wrong, calls Lorenz' action a shameful attempt at winning election and said he is sure the complaint will be dismissed.
Lorenz, a member of a group called Elizabeth Parents & Students Care, is a familiar face at board meetings. She contends Rodriguez, on Dec. 8, 2015, accepted a $375 donation to his re-election campaign from Robert Varady of the law firm of LaCorte, Bundy, Varady & Kinsella.
Lorenz believes the interaction was a violation of the Code of Ethics for school board members.
Varady was appointed co-general counsel for the board at the board's re-organization meeting January 7. Rodriguez recused himself from the vote. On Feb. 18, the firm was among a group approved by the board under a professional services contract.
An agreement between the law firm and the board says “LaCorte represents that it has not made a reportable contribution to any member of the BOE during the one-year prior to the commencement of the term of this agreement and shall not make a reportable contribution to any member of the BOE during the term of this agreement.”
Lorenz also charges that Rodriguez has violated the board’s policy banning "pay to play."
“It is my firm belief that Mr. Rodriguez has committed an ethical violation by way of utilizing his position as school board member to benefit others," contends Lorenz in her complaint. "Mr. Rodriguez is also in clear violation of the board’s own policy on Banning Pay to Play. The fact is that monetary contributions were made by Mr. Varady, a name partner in his firm, precisely 28 days before a re-organization meeting of the board. Mr. Rodriguez voted in the affirmative to appoint him as General Counsel to the Board of Education on February 18, 2016."
Lorenz's complaint goes on to assert that Rodriguez’s judgment "has been severely impaired when he accepts money from a name partner and votes the firm in; instead of abstaining on the resolution to appoint Mr.Varady’s firm to the board."
She further asserts that Rodriguez's "moral compass" is "out of service" and she asked the School Ethics Commission "to take formal action on this egregious and blatant unethical act.”
In his response to the complaint, Rodriguez – pointing to meeting minutes - said he did not vote to appoint the law firm at the Jan 7 meeting. He said he cast an affirmative vote Feb. 18 to approve a form contract that included the firm in question.
“As you know, Ms. Lorenz filed a complaint against me with the School Ethics Commission," Rodriquez told TAPinto Elizabeth. "It has been reviewed in detail by legal counsel appointed by the board, and they totally concur with my position that it is absolutely baseless. It represents nothing more than a desperate attempt by a candidate for a seat in this year's board election to try to smear my good name for her own political advantage by making accusations without any basis in fact or in law."
Rodriguez said he finds it unfortunate that, due to administrative procedural rules, the commission must allow Lorenz's complaint to be reviewed.
"After they review the matter, we will file our request that the case be dismissed in its entirely as having no merit," he said. "Anyone can file a complaint of this type against a board member. However, after they do so, they have to actually prove the charges they are making. Ms. Lorenz is simply misusing this process to try to gain publicity for her failing election campaign."
Rodriquez additionally asserted the "real shame is that the taxpayers of Elizabeth have to bear the legal fees and costs necessary to defend this matter," and added he hopes Lorenz "will have the character and decency to reimburse the board and citizens" when the complaint is dismissed.