2 freeholders seek ouster of all Brookdale trustees

Curley: Others should follow lead of Howard Birdsall and resign from panel

Staff Writer

With the resignation of Brookdale Community College Board of Trustees Chairman Howard Birdsall announced last week, Monmouth County Freeholders John Curley and Amy Mallet are calling for more change at the county college.

“It’s time for all of the board members to now follow suit, because they are the ones that approved the spending of the president,” Curley said in an interview with Greater Media Newspapers on May 5.

Curley asserted that the college’s trustees failed to fulfill their moral and fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers.

According to Monmouth County, $28.8 million in county funds went to Brookdale in 2009 and $27.9 million went to the college in 2010. The county’s 2011 budget allocates $21.9 million to the college.

“The Board of Trustees were not watching the store and we had a pickpocket in the store that was just clipping here and there,” Curley said.

Brookdale President Peter Burnham retired on March 8 after the trustees of the Middletown college voted to place him on unpaid administrative leave when allegations of expense abuses related to the President’s Office surfaced.

Curley said the current trustees should not be involved in selecting the college’s next president.

“We need a full housecleaning with new trustees choosing the new president so there are no strings attached,” he said. “I think a lot of these boards become very complacent and they become country clubs — golf and cocktails.” In addition to Birdsall, the Brookdale Board of Trustees consists of Jacob S. Elkes, Lewis G. Anderson, Simon M. Bosco, the Rev. Brian Butch, Sarah Lucille Jones, Peter Kapsales, Richard M. Maser, Carol Knopp Morris, Gene J. Mulroy, Joan Raymond and John Eagan.

Mallet said she believes Birdsall’s long tenure on the board contributed to the policy oversights.

“These problems are largely due to complacency that I believe can be a common consequence of 23 years on the board,” the freeholder said in a press release. “This resignation is a start, but in order to realize a new era of accountability, more change must take place.”

Mallet also recommended that the freeholders work to institute term limits on various county boards.

Curley said he believes an audit of every department at Brookdale would help reinstate the public’s trust.

“I feel there are a lot of hidden expenditures that may have benefited the upper echelon of college employees,” he said. “[Auditing] each and every department is going to cost money, but in the long term I think it will help the public and allay the public’s fears and concerns.”

Curley and Mallet also faulted Board of Trustees attorney John Cantalupo.

“His role in drafting the perquisite-laden contract of the former president demonstrates a lack of good judgment,” Mallet said in the press release.

Curley said Cantalupo was familiar with Burnham’s contract and should have raised a red flag.

“He should have known the rules and regulations … that the board had and brought them back on track,” he said. “He’s the one that’s paid there [on the board].”

Curley praised the work of Brookdale’s interim president, William Toms.

“He is doing a terrific job in what would, in essence, be a war zone, and in coordinating things,” he said.

Board of Trustees Vice Chairman Josh Elkes will serve as interim chairman until the board conducts a formal election, Toms said in a press release.

According to Curley, a selection committee will gather, vet and recommend applicants for new trustees, and the final decision will be made by the freeholders. He said he would like to see more diversity in experience among the trustees.

“Brookdale is a wonderful school; it has diversified programs, so we need diversity on our board,” he said.

In a press release announcing Birdsall’s resignation from the Board of Trustees, Toms praised him for his dedication to the college.

“From the moment I arrived at Brookdale, Howard has worn his pride, commitment and passion for Brookdale on his sleeve. I know he was personally determined to ensure that we took the steps needed to deal with the situation arising from the actions of former president Burnham, and he was committed to stabilizing the staff leadership and instituting the policies and systems needed to ensure that nothing like that could happen again,” Toms said.

In April, the trustees approved legal action against Burnham for charges including breach of contract and intentional fraud causing damage following an independent audit that concluded the president failed to comply with policies concerning expenses related to the President’s Office and that he sought to conceal the actions.

Findings in the audit report generally fell 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.

Burnham’s attorney, Steven Secare, has said the trustees approved everything Burnham did. Secare said some of Burnham’s actions constituted a contract once acknowledged by all parties.

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.

According to Brookdale officials, the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office is currently investigating the alleged expense abuses.

The fiscal improprieties at Brookdale and similar improprieties reported at Gloucester County College in southern New Jersey prompted the Office of the State Comptroller to launch an investigation into compensation packages of county college officials.

Brookdale recently announced it is seeking responses to a Request for Qualifications/ Request for Proposals from qualified executive search firms with experience in conducting successful searches for college presidents.