Ethics panel discussion is a disappointment

Your Turn

Guest Column • Arthur Z. Kamin

There’s some good news and there’s some bad news following Brookdale Community College’s joint venture panel discussion Sept. 16 with Assemblywoman Amy H. Handlin that presented a significant program for students, faculty and the public on the hot-button “Ethics in New Jersey Politics” topic. The forum was part of an educational initiative compromise deal brokered after Handlin, a Monmouth Republican, ran into a Brookdale stone wall in her courageous effort to get a new name for Larrison Hall. That’s the tainted classroom and administrative building that stands out like a sore-thumb campus monument to the late longtime former Republican Freeholder Director Harry Larrison Jr., charged in 2005 by the FBI with accepting bribes in a nasty Monmouth County corruption scandal.

Brookdale President Peter F. Burnham wasn’t about to yield on the building name change. Neither was his politically appointed board of trustees. Handlin settled for two educational events: a commencement address by Burnham in May with an ethics theme and the panel discussion — both designed to demonstrate the evils of entrenched Garden State powerbrokers and blatant political power and cronyism gone amok. The commencement ethics talk fell flat. It did not address the local issues. But the good news is that the second program attracted a first-rate panel of experts who came to discuss, pro bono, why New Jersey has such a lousy national reputation as a political corruption hotbed and what needs to be done to correct the situation. “It’s much, much worse” than imagined, Handlin said at the forum.

What an extraordinary learning opportunity for Brookdale students — especially those studying government, political science and criminal justice. What an extraordinary opportunity for Brookdale faculty to mix one-on-one with journalists, a political reformer, a leading academic and a public activist who fight the ethics battle daily in the New Jersey halls of government trenches. And there they all were on a podium in Brookdale’s Warner Student Life Center for all to see and hear — Ingrid W. Reed, New Jersey project director at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics; Bob Ingle, Trenton bureau chief for Gannett’s New Jersey newspapers and coauthor of “The Soprano State: New Jersey’s Culture of Corruption”; Sandra Matsen, former president of the state League of Women Voters; and Handlin, also a former freeholder who single-handedly helped bring major ethical and fiscal changes to the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders. Joe Bisicchia, a host and producer of CN8’s “Comcast Newsmakers,” was moderator.

But the bad news is that Brookdale did not make a strong effort on the academic and marketing sides to get students, faculty and the public out to this epic program. About 60 people — an estimated half of them students and a few faculty members — rattled around in the big lecture hall. “I was disappointed in the turnout,” Handlin said. Burnham did not respond to a question on his reaction to the meager attendance. The college’s Web site, for example, gave greater play to an upcoming rock and hip-hop concert by Jason Mraz than it did to the ethics forum. Now the ethics program can be seen on a Brookdale TV Web site video.

And there’s more bad news. Brookdale continues to be in denial over the seriousness of the Larrison Hall issue and there was no disclosure of the culture of corruption

that existed in Monmouth County government during the Larrison regime. Not a word was said about the Burnham-Handlin deal that made the ethics forum a reality. It wasn’t until this writer asked the questions that Handlin mentioned Larrison Hall, and Burnham, seated in the audience, breathed the words “Bid Rig,” the FBI sweep that led to the arrest of 11 officials in the county. Larrison died in 2005, a few weeks after being charged by U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie. The case never went to trial. Yet, Christie’s statewide record is a solid one — he has posted 126 convictions of corrupt officials in the last six years. And, from what is in the newspapers, that number may be growing soon.

And there’s even more bad news. Unfortunately, moderator Bisicchia was never updated on the Larrison Hall situation and said he was unaware of “the genesis of the Handlin-Burnham compromise,” adding: “If I had known that, I would have welcomed your questions in a different way.” But Bisicchia, a down-the-middle newsman, said he was willing to come back to Brookdale for another ethics forum — this time bringing up the whole corruption issue in the context of Larrison, Larrison Hall, Bid Rig, and the impact that still is being felt from that shameful time in Monmouth County history. Brookdale should take advantage of what has the potential to be another extraordinary learning opportunity.

Arthur Z. Kamin of Fair Haven, is an independent journalist and former Brookdale adjunct instructor.