Trenton — A top aide to the New Jersey environmental agency improperly worked to locate financing, provide coaching and smooth regulatory hurdles for a controversial beach-front development, according to a complaint filed today before the State Ethics Commission by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The complaint requests investigation of a key state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) official, who appears to have broken ethics rules against providing inside information and showing undue partiality to a permit applicant.
The case involves plans by developers to turn the historic Takanassee Beach Club property in Long Branch into a multi-unit residential complex. Historic buildings on the site date back to the U.S. Lifesaving Service, the forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard. The proposed development has drawn considerable opposition.
Despite the fact that this permit is before the DEP, Mary Comfort, personal advisor to Commissioner Lisa P. Jackson and head of the Office of Dispute Resolution, collaborated with the attorney for the permit-seeker (Takanassee Developers LLC) to secure approvals and potential financing, according to documents obtained under the Open Public Records Act by Surfers’ Environmental Alliance. For example –
- In a 10/2/07 email sent to a representative of the developer, Comfort refers to “working with wolf” (“wolf” is Wolf Skacel, DEP Assistant Commissioner for Enforcement. Skacel was involved in issuing a financial penalty and enforcement settlement for an unrelated violation in Long Branch). In so doing, Comfort disclosed confidential enforcement information while attempting to direct moneys from a pending DEP enforcement action to benefit the developer’s project;
- In a subsequent 10/2/07 email, Comfort appears to be intervening in and negotiating regulatory compliance issues, while contradicting DEP permit staff findings that the development proposal failed to comply with “parking requirements within the traffic rule”; and
- Several e-mails show Comfort coaching the applicant to make sure that he is “crossing t’s and dotting i’s” while also arranging private meetings, site visits, and luncheons with the applicant.
“This is simply outrageous – you have a state official making selective disclosures of pre-decisional and enforcement sensitive information to representatives of a developer with a known economic stake in the outcome of a permit during the course of DEP review,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe who filed the complaint. “Ms. Comfort has clearly undermined the integrity of the permitting process and created an unmistakable appearance of favoring one side in a contested action.”
The PEER complaint asks the State Ethics Commission to take the matter up at its next meeting to “determine compliance and take enforcement action, as warranted” against ethical breaches. The public comment on the proposed Takanassee Beach Club permit closed on February 22nd.
“Unbelievably, DEP appears to be defending Ms. Comfort’s actions,” Wolfe added, pointing to press statements by an agency spokeswoman. “This only adds to the growing impression that DEP works for developers, not the public.”
View a selection of Comfort e-mails
A full set of the documents is available on request from the Surfrider Foundation
Contact: John Weber (732) 988-4742 or Jweber@surfrider.org
Look at how DEP insists on conducting business behind closed doors
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability