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Ocean County College 'Whistle-blower' Alleges Contracts, Ethics Violations

NJEA and Faculty Association call on college president to resign, FBI asked to investigate

The Faculty Association of Ocean County College and the New Jersey Education Association are calling for college President Dr. Jon Larson to resign in the wake of a "whistle-blower" lawsuit filed by a former college administrator who alleges a pattern of illegalities and unethical behavior exists at the college.

The faculty association also has asked the FBI to probe the purchasing processes at Ocean County College and plan to prevail upon the Board of Chosen Freeholders to investigate after Joseph B. Reilly, the college's former manager of purchasing, filed a Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) suit Oct. 30, 2011.

Reilly, a Freehold resident who formerly served as a state deputy attorney general, contends that he was disciplined and later released after a year's service in which he attempted to document and address what he felt were repeated violations of county college contracts law as well as court precedent.

"I want to bring purchasing at Ocean County College out in the open," said Reilly, who asks for his job back in the CEPA suit. "I don't like walking away.

"This position was eliminated because I pointed out things," he said in a news conference Wednesday at the Toms River Howard Johnson's.

The college, through a spokesperson, contends Reilly is a "disgruntled" former employee whose release was merely part of a cost-saving reduction in force. The college also questions the NJEA's motives, calling their accusations "hogwash." 

In the suit (which names Larson; Karen Papakonstantinou, the director of accounting; Sara Winchester, the vice president of finance; James McGinty, the college's executive vice president, and Richard Parrish, former vice president of planning and administration) Reilly alleges the practice of college employees soliciting vendors for donations to the Ocean County College Foundation creates at least the "appearance of impropriety." He wrote Winchester, his superior, on July 30, 2010, that such a practice could lead a vendor to believe donations were "simply a cost of doing business with the college." 

However, Reilly's concerns were rejected and recommended by Winchester as a "permissible practice" with the college's ethics policy, he claims.

Reilly also states in the CEPA complaint that the county college contracts law was violated with several contracts improperly awarded, and claims the Board of Trustees often awarded contracts to vendors who did not submit the lowest responsible bids.

"Civil laws are being repeatedly violated," said Chris Berzinski, an NJEA field representative. "It's more than incompetence."

The college spokesperson said the claims are without merit.

“This is more NJEA hogwash designed to unfairly discredit OCC after the union rejected a fair and reasonable contract proposal by the College in September 2011. The NJEA is exploiting false and unfounded allegations made by a disgruntled former employee whose position was eliminated last year as part of a reduction in force that provided significant savings for the College, students and taxpayers," read the prepared statement.

Repeated Concerns, Reprimands

Reilly, who formerly headed the Montclair State University of Procurement Services, spent just less than six months as manager of purchasing before he was informed Nov. 22, 2010, that his position would be eliminated July 1, 2011. 

He was the first manager of purchasing at the college in five years when he started work June 7, 2010, with procurement responsibilities having been held by Papakonstantinou, the college's director of accounting. With the elimination of the purchasing position, responsibilities have reverted back to Papakonstantinou, who is named in the suit.

Reilly finds it curious that the college would fill a vacant administrative position only to change course mere months later. "What happened between June 6, 2010, and Nov. 18, 2010?" he asks in a letter to the college Board of Trustees dated Dec. 6, 2010.

Reilly contends that "what happened" were repeated run-ins with his superior, Winchester, the college's vice president of finance, over his attempts to address what he felt were deficiencies or outright illegalities in purchasing practices. He was disciplined three times in the year he worked at OCC.

A written reprimand was issued by Winchester for Reilly copying Raymond Arcario, the state Division of Property Management and Construction deputy director, on emailed correspondence concerning a contract he felt was improperly terminated and given to another vendor without competition being solicited or the Board of Trustees being notified. Winchester allegedly wrote that informing a state official of his concerns "caused unnecessary harm to the reputation of Ocean County College," Reilly claims.

He also was disciplined after questioning the awarding of a $3,962,980 information technology contract to SunGard Higher Education Managed Services as well as a $60,000 consulting services contract with a former SunGard principle. Reilly said competition was not solicited before awarding the nearly $4 million contract, and that the consulting contract was awarded primarily because the principle had worked for SunGard.

Finally, Reilly was subjected to a disciplinary investigative meeting March 31, 2011, after the college was contacted by the Office of the State Comptroller roughly seven weeks after Reilly said he advised Gov. Chris Christie in a memorandum that OCC "has a record of failing to solicit competition in accord with the County College Contracts Law." Reilly said the disciplinary meeting, led by Winchester, was contrary to the "whistle-blower" act.

The college officials named in the CEPA suit will not comment beyond the prepared statement, citing the ongoing litigation.

Demands for Investigation

Reilly's complaint demands the college implement purchasing policies consistent with contract and case law; re-establish the manager of purchasing position; offer the position to him; and pay attorney fees and damages.

While he concedes such complaints are often settled out of court, Reilly said he's prepared for a jury trial, explaining that he feels he "failed" in his responsibilities by not convincing his superiors that the best practices he suggested be implemented. Ultimately, he hopes his complaint will lead OCC to establish purchasing procedures that are more transparent.

While roughly "80 percent of the contracts are done correctly," the other 20 percent "run afoul" of regulations, Reilly said.

He, Berzinski and the Faculty Association stop short of alleging criminal behavior on the part of college officials, although Berzinski feels "where there's smoke there's fire.

"Perhaps the FBI needs to get involved in this," Berzinski said.

He and Kathy Tietge, president of the faculty association, said they would be dropping off copies of the complaint to the Board of Freeholders for possible investigation, as well. As of Wednesday afternoon, freeholders Joseph Vicari and John Bartlett said they were not aware of the lawsuit.

"They have the ultimate authority," Berzinski said, in that they name trustees to the college board.

"My fear is it goes much deeper than this."

foggyworld July 26, 2012 at 03:28 AM
Any chance you might part with the names of these folks? It's hard to vote them out of office without knowing who they are. Many thanks.
BC Lib August 06, 2012 at 01:22 AM
@ foggyworld ~ that would be Dave Wolffe.
skizma August 06, 2012 at 09:55 AM
I have found their advising to be poor at best. No real oversight, direction, guidance, etc. They quickly answer your question and that's it. Nothing more insightful, no questions, just enough to complete your question and be done. Wrong. Guidance is supposed to guide....not get you out of the office.
skizma August 06, 2012 at 09:57 AM
and Larson, think someone new could infuse some direction and energy into the school? Community college is the future. Everyone is finally figuring out that money they are throwing into overpriced four year school's is dumb. Student debt is dangerous and even stupider. Community colleges should be excellent and should expect such from their staff.
skizma August 06, 2012 at 09:59 AM
How about their hiring a chem teacher that was already convicted of drug use? uhhh take a look at your staff OCC......If brookdale and other's can be quality, so can you...

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