Elizabeth BOE president cleared of six out of seven ethics complaints

ELIZABETH – A school ethics commission last week dismissed six of the seven charges filed by city residents in 2013 against School Board President Tony Monteiro.

The ethics violations, which mainly involved Monteiro failing to file his financial and personal disclosure statements with the state for 2008, 2012 and 2013, were thrown out by the State Ethics Commission, along with two other charges related to a vote the school board president cast at the annual reorganization meeting in January 2013.

The two charges, which the commission found “meritless,” alleged the school board president abused his authority by voting on a measure concerning a business he had financial interest in, according to the complaint filed with the state.

Disclosure statements are required of any school official, elected or otherwise, regardless whether they have a job with the school district or a relative party to a contract with the school.

In this annual statement, officials have to reveal whether they or a relative receive compensation from any business having a contract with the school district, as well as the nature of that business.

They also must disclose the name of the business or businesses they have a vested interest in, as required by state law.
New Jersey State Law is very strict about filing disclosure statements; anyone failing to do so, or filing one with false information “is subject to reprimand, censure, suspension or removal.”

At issue was whether Monteiro would be removed from his position as board president. The ethics commission recommended in their report that Monteiro be reprimanded by the school board.

The remaining claim against the school board president, and the one he was found guilty of, was technical in nature, according to Stephen Edelstein, the attorney representing Monteiro.

He explained that this particular charge was a reflection of “appearance” more than any actual conflict.
Monteiro, who said he abstained from voting on issues relating to an accounting firm he was involved with financially, was chairing his first meeting as board president when he voted on a resolution for the accounting firm in question.

“The vote was the result of some confusion about which item was before the board at that particular moment,” said Edelstein, the attorney representing the school board president, noting the vote was 8 to 0 on this particular resolution so Monteiro’s vote “was of no consequence.”
Edelstein mentioned that the accounting firm in question is Mendonca and Suarez, an auditing firm awarded a contract for professional services involving accounting and auditing for the Elizabeth School District.

The firm previously changed the name of their business to Mendonca and Partners and was again awarded a contract by the school board for $127,500 in 2013.

Supporting documents obtained by LocalSource last year for a previous article included minutes of meetings that backed up the fact Monteiro had cast a vote to approve this move.

According to the complaint filed by city residents, Sammie Muhammad, Jineen Holmes, Amanda Leon and Brunilda Cruz, maintained Monteiro had a vested interest with Mendonca and Suarez because the accounting firm is the same entry listed at the business address on tax records for the Roselle Park Restaurant, Solar Do Minho Steakhouse and Bar.

Monteiro was or continues to be one of the partners that applied for and received a $5 million mortgage on this Roselle Park restaurant. However, the list the school board members supplied to the state in 2007 never mentioned this property as one of the school board president’s vested interests.

The complaint maintained that Helder Mendonca is or was a principal in Mendonca and Partners, which is the same company awarded a contract to perform auditing services for the Elizabeth School District. City residents backed this up by providing documents recorded by the Union County Clerk’s Office. According to Edelstein, even though Monteiro has no interest in the accounting firm, he had previously abstained from any votes which involved the firm because of a past business relationship.

“As Monteiro stated under oath in the matter ‘Because I was adjusting to my new role of running the meeting, I inadvertently voted in the affirmative’ on the appointment of Mendonca and Partners,” Edelstein explained, adding again that the school board president’s vote was not crucial to the outcome since the resolution carried by a vote of 8 to 0, with one abstention.

Monteiro also swore at the hearing before the school ethics commission that he “did not realize that he had mistakenly voted on the resolution until he was served with the complaint.”
Edelstein said even though all of the significant charges were dismissed, Monteiro will nonetheless appeal the finding that a single, unintentional act can constitute a violation.

“I have an unblemished record,” said the school board president, adding that he will appeal this technical violation “to keep it that way.”
“I’m sure the people who filed the complaint will try to make a big deal out of the ruling, but the fact is that I was found to have done nothing other than make a mistake about which resolution was before the board,” said Monteiro in a statement.