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Attempted Return of Ritacco Era Style Politics Blocked by Toms River School Board

TOMS RIVER-A move to fire the current Toms River School Board auditor and replace the firm with a politically connected pay to play vendor that donated to the campaign of a newly elected school board member was successfully blocked on Tuesday.

The Toms River School Board voted 6-3 on a measure to retain the financial services of Wiss & Company of Livingston which the board said has represented the district well for the past three years.

Daniel Leonard, who represents the small borough of Beachwood, population 11,000, threw a fit after the board did not fire Wiss & Company and hire one of his political campaign contributors, the Toms River firm of Holman Frenia Allison.

“I voted against this vote because we had 5 proposals, we interviewed three, I felt that one of those three were highly qualified,” Daniel Leonard said. “They came in about $20,000 lower than the one we just voted on.”

What Leonard did not disclose during his statement to the public was that the firm also donated generously to his political campaign, which received $1,000 from the NJ Citizens for Conservatism political action committee (PAC).  Holman donated $2,200 to that PAC which operates out of the offices of Bellu Memoli at 222 Oak Avenue in Toms River.

Leonard, during his campaign received $8,495 in campaign donations.  Aside from the $1,000 he received from the NJ Citizens for Conservatism PAC, he also took in $2,600 from an Arlington, Virginia based Go PAC election fund.

School board Republicans Daniel Leonard, Joseph Nardini and Christopher Raimann voted no when it came to reappoint the current auditor, but the remainder of the 9 member board voted against the pay to play vendor, even though their bid was lower than their current vendor.

“If you recall, not to long ago, we came out of a situation where financials were being questions,” School Board President Ben Giovine said, referring to the Michael Ritacco scandal that gave the district a black eye which it is only now recovering from. “At this point, when it comes to professionals services, we have an organization that was doing a good job that was making sure that our budget was being properly audited and properly looked at.”

In an interview with the Asbury Park Press, Giovine further defended the board’s position against the firm that had made political campaign donations to Leonard and others reported in their bid application.

Giovine said he and his fellow board members rejected Holman’s proposal because of questionable political connections.  Giovine said the decision was based more on ethical concerns and obligations by the board, not just the $20,000 savings.

“The majority of the board felt uncomfortable with the political contributions reported on Holman’s RFP (Request For Proposal),” Giovine said in the interview. “Given the district’s history, the board felt that an auditor should be completely independent, especially when acting as outside eyes to the district’s finances. The selected firm did not have such contributions.”

Leonard later lashed out on social media calling reports on his failed pay to play scheme within the school district, “fake news”.

A look into Leonard’s contributors through the political action committee turned up a laundry list of who’s who in Ocean County political patronage including Dasti, Murphy, McGuckin;  T&M Associates; Remington, Vernick and Vena and CME Associates.

In New Jersey, school boards are supposed to be non-partisan governing bodies entrusted with supervision of the education of children, not to be turned into a political pay to play playground for professional appointments.

“NJSBA takes the non-partisan nature of school boards seriously,”  Dr. Larry Feinsod, Executive Director of the New Jersey School Board Association said recently in a statement regarding school board politics.  “We want officials to understand school boards’ commitment to that principle.”

Photo: Daniel Leonard, from his “Team Leonard” political campaign Facebook page.

Editorial correction:  Carmen Memoli was incorrectly identified as an employee of NJ Citizens for Conservatism PAC as reported on the October 31, 2016 form R-1 form filed by the Leonard Campaign.




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