In August 2013, Montclair resident David Herron filed a complaint against Montclair Board member Leslie Larson claiming she had a conflict of interest in violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24 School Ethics Code. The exact complaint is as follows:
Larson, as a Montclair Board of Education member, on January 28, 2013, voted to approve a contract to Uncommon Schools LLC, for employees of the “District” to attend a conference/workshop run by UNCOMMON SCHOOLS, LLC. The conference was held from February 7, 2013, to February 9, 2013, on the campus of the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, Virginia, at a cost to the District of $ 7300. The conference was run by Santoyo [a resident of Montclair and the Managing Director of Uncommon Schools LLC] and was to provide consultant services to the District of Montclair. Lawson had full knowledge that her spouse, Katz, is a founding member and current trustee of UNCOMMON SCHOOLS LLC, and that Santoyo is the Managing Director of UNCOMMON SCHOOLS LLC. Larson by voting as a Montclair Board of Education member, to award a contract to UNCOMMON SCHOOLS LLC, Larson did create a conflict of interest in violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24, (a),(b),(c),(d),(e),(f), which states in part:
“No school official or member of his immediate family shall have an interest in a business organization or engage in any business, transaction, or professional activity, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest.
WHEREFORE, I, as the Complainant, request that the School Ethics Commission find and determine that the above-named Respondent, Leslie Larson, has violated the School Ethics Act and that she be subject to such penalty as provided by the Act.
On January 28, 2014, the School Ethics Commission of New Jersey reviewed the complaint and “found probable cause to credit the allegations that the respondent [Larson] violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24, (a),(b),(c),and (f) as alleged in Count 1 and Count 2 of the complaint”:
a. No school official or member of his immediate family shall have an interest in a business organization or engage in any business, transaction, or professional activity, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest;
b. No school official shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges, advantages or employment for himself, members of his immediate family or others;
c. No school official 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 involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment. No school official shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he or a member of his immediate family has a personal involvement that is or creates some benefit to the school official or member of his immediate family;
f. No school official shall use, or allow to be used, his public office or employment, or any information, not generally available to the members of the public, which he receives or acquires in the course of and by reason of his office or employment, for the purpose of securing financial gain for himself, any member of his immediate family, or any business organization with which he is associated;
The Commission dismissed alleged violations of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24, (d) and (e) as alleged in both Counts of the complaint:
d. No school official shall undertake any employment or service, whether compensated or not, which might reasonably be expected to prejudice his independence of judgment in the exercise of his official duties;
e. No school official, or member of his immediate family, or business organization in which he has an interest, shall solicit or accept any gift, favor, loan, political contribution, service, promise of future employment, or other thing of value based upon an understanding that the gift, favor, loan, contribution, service, promise, or other thing of value was given or offered for the purpose of influencing him, directly or indirectly, in the discharge of his official duties. This provision shall not apply to the solicitation or acceptance of contributions to the campaign of an announced candidate for elective public office, if the school official has no knowledge or reason to believe that the campaign contribution, if accepted, was given with the intent to influence the school official in the discharge of his official duties;
The Commission voted to transmit the matter to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) for hearing.
Larson and her counsel, Board attorney Mark Tabakin, say they “will present a vigorous defense of what we believe are baseless allegations that lack merit. We look forward to the matter being dismissed.”
The Board is paying for Ms. Larson’s legal fees and have not yet decided whether it will reimburse board member David Cummings’s fees from his attorney Stuart Ball, which are $69,000.
Tabakin explained that when Herron’s School Ethics complaint was received, Larson immediately and formally requested that the Board indemnify her because the SEC complaint alleged that she violated the New Jersey School Ethics Act by voting to approve the payment of certain bills.
“After reviewing the Complaint, the Board determined that the actions alleged to have been improperly taken by Ms. Larson were in her official capacity as a member of the Montclair Board of Education.,” says Tabakin. He added, “Accordingly, the Board approved her indemnification via resolution passed at a public Board meeting.”
According to Tabakin, Cummings did not formally request indemnification until several months had elapsed and long after he retained counsel on his own accord.
“Mr. Cummings is not a named party in any legal action arising from actions taken in his official capacity. Put differently, unlike Ms. Larson, he is not a defendant. Instead, he is making a claim against the Board for reimbursement of legal fees,” Tabakin clarified.
The Board is still deliberating on Cummings’s request for reimbursement and no decision has yet been made.