Byrnes, an attorney, has been charged in his capacity as a member of the Middletown Township Committee with voting and commenting on the appointment of Thomas F. Stokes to the Middletown Sewerage Authority on January 6, 2008. Stokes, who filed the complaint with the Local Finance Board on October 15 and with the Attorney Ethics Committee on October 16, says Byrnes has a conflict of interest because he is the opposing counsel in various lawsuits involving Stokes that have been ongoing since 2001.
The minutes of the January 6, 2008 Middletown Township Committee meeting indicate that Byrnes voted No, with comment, on the Stokes appointment and that of all Sewerage Authority appointees.
The Asbury Park Press endorsed Byrnes for Freeholder today. In fairness to the APP, they were probably unaware of, and certainly haven't had the time to look into the ethics charges prior to making their endorsement.
Stokes said, "It is very clear that the Democrat candidate for Freeholder is guilty of unethical conduct as a township committee member. I am tired of public officials thinking they are above the law, regardless of political party.
Mr. Byrnes has been involved in an adversarial relationship with myself, through litigation, since at least 2001. Yet, even though he had this business and personal, adversarial relationship, he failed to recuse himself when my appointment to the Township of Middletown Sewer Authority. Even though he is an attorney, Mr. Byrnes' refusal to obey the law in this regard should disqualify him from holding any public office."
Stokes cited the law governing municipal elected officials:
40A:9-22.5 Provisions requiring compliance by local government officers, employees
Local government officers or employees under the jurisdiction of the Local Finance Board shall comply with the following provisions:
d. No local government officer or employee shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he, a member of his immediate family, or a business organization in which he has an interest, has a direct or indirect financial or personal involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment;
MoreMonmouthMusings asked Fair Haven Mayor Mike Halfacre, also an attorney, to comment on this situation without divulging who was involved. We posed the scenario where an elected official who is an attorney votes against the appointment of a citizen to a local board or authority and the appointee is a party to a suit wherein the elected official is opposing counsel. Halfacre said, "Without knowing the facts or doing any research, that scenario is very close to the line and probably a conflict for the person in his capacity as an elected official. If the vote and comments where influenced by knowledge the official obtained while acting as an attorney, it could be a violation of the Attorneys Code of Ethics as well."
Another attorney and elected official who declined to be named in this story went further, "Elected officials must always avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. As attorneys it is pounded into our heads for three years of law school to avoid these types of conflicts. If the elected official in question acted or commented based on knowledge obtained through his or her case, that person's license to practice law is at risk."
Byrnes has not yet responded to requests for comment. This story will be updated if he does.
Stokes' complaint and supporting documentation can be viewed here.