State investigates county college compensation

Handlin’s call for inquiry prompted by Brookdale audit report findings

Staff Writer

Fiscal improprieties at Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, and other county colleges in New Jersey have prompted the Office of the State Comptroller to launch an investigation into compensation packages of college officials.

Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (RMonmouth and Middlesex) said she sent a letter dated April 25 to the state Comptroller’s Office requesting that it “review the contracts, perks and spending policies of county college presidents.”

Handlin said she received a quick response and spoke with the comptroller later that day.

“They were already thinking along the same lines and an investigation is being launched,” she said in anApril 26 interview with Greater Media Newspapers. “It’s clear that we were independently on the same page.”

Peter McAleer, a Comptroller’s Office spokesman, confirmed that the office has begun reviewing the county colleges, including Gloucester County College.

“We are looking at the compensation packages for all the community college superintendents,” McAleer said.

Both the investigation and Handlin’s letter are responses to the presidents of both colleges relinquishing their positions amid accusations of fiscal impropriety, according to Handlin.

“Two presidents of New Jersey’s county colleges have recently resigned amid accusations of fiscal impropriety that have triggered criminal investigations,” she wrote. “There are very serious allegations about possible spending irregularities and potential corruption here at Brookdale.”

Earlier this month, an independent audit concluded that former Brookdale Community College President Peter Burnham failed to comply with policies concerning expenses related to the President’s Office and sought to conceal the actions.

The Brookdale Board of Trustees has approved legal action against Burnham for charges including breach of contract and intentional fraud causing damage.

The findings in the audit report generally fall into four categories: deceptive receipt; unauthorized payments not associated with Brookdale; unauthorized reimbursement for personal travel or entertainment; and unauthorized reimbursement expenses incurred during medical leave.

The trustees also placed Brookdale Chief Financial Officer George Fehr on unpaid administrative leave and are investigating possible legal action, charging that he failed to properly enforce the college’s policies regarding expenses related to the president’s office.

Burnham’s lawyer, Steven Secare, said the trustees approved everything Burnham did.

“I can’t have the things they are saying about him to be aired publicly without some kind of response,” the attorney said.

Secare said some of Burnham’s actions constituted a contract once acknowledged by all parties.

“Some of the things he did, he had done for a period of time, and while they are not specifically in the contract, the principles of law that apply say once you do something, that would be a contract. [Even if something] is not specifically in a contract, if it’s done and recognized by both sides, it becomes a de facto contract,” Secare said.

Handlin said she wants to ensure that similar situations do not exist at other institutions.

“When the news came out about Brookdale, at first I hoped it was an isolated incident, but then I learned there were allegations of similar spending irregularities at Gloucester County College,” Handlin said.

This prompted her request of the Comptroller’s Office to investigate if there is a pattern of abuse and potentially of corruption, she said.

“This being New Jersey, I realized that if there are two such incidents, there may very well be more,” the assemblywoman said.

In her letter, Handlin wrote, “While I hope these are isolated examples, I cannot have faith that these issues are unique to Monmouth and Gloucester counties given the propensity for waste and abuse in New Jersey’s public agencies and institutions.”

However, Handlin said she hopes her suspicions are wrong.

“I would love to see a report that indicates there is no pattern of abuse or corruption,” she said. “But if that’s what we find, we’ll have to look at the facts and decide what kind of action to take.”