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Larry Benjamin's blog

Monday, February 26, 2007

Ethics 101

They held a symposium on government ethics the other day in response, in part, to the number of public officials caught, as Attorney General Stuart Rabner put it, "gaming the system'' for personal gain. Rabner told the 70 local and county officials, municipal administrators and law enforcement folks there to use common sense to avoid conflicts of interest and to think about appropriate behavior and the appearance of impropriety.

It all makes perfect sense. What's shameful is that we have to hold symposiums on ethics in the first place. Public officials on all government levels need so much help that Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos Jr., R-Monmouth, is working up legislation to require ethics training on a regular basis. It's sad that we've come to this point. You know what's right and what's wrong - and you'd think our elected officials would, too. But too many don't. Which is why they should be tossed into jail and lose their benefits - including all their pension - for not knowing the difference.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Dag who?

Surveys that expose the sorry handle on American history and government by U.S. college students these days don't go far enough. They should stop by the state Legislature in Trenton. When Gov. Corzine referred to former United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold as a hero of his youth near the end of his budget address Thursday, several legislators were left clueless. That's a shame.

"Who's that?'' asked Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos Jr., R-Monmouth. "Nope, I don't know,'' said Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck, also R-Monmouth. It's not just a Republican failing. Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, D-Union, also didn't know. At least they didn't make light of their ignorance the way Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, did when he quipped: "I thought he was talking about Dagwood in the comics.''

Yes, Hammarskjold died in a plane crash in 1961. And these four legislators were born from 1959 through 1967. But what did they learn in high school, if not college or grad school? As one of our letter writers noted, "I don't know whether I am more appalled that public servants didn't recognize the name of Dag Hammarskjold or that some of them frankly admitted it.'' For journalists, quotable news sources make our day. But sometimes what they say leaves us wondering, too.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

No sympathy for Internet addict

In the you-can't-make-this-up category of news, there's the guy from upstate New York who is suing IBM for $5 million for improperly firing him for visiting an adult chat room on the Internet at work. You see, he's a long-time sex addict and, more recently, an Internet addict. He visits chat rooms as treatment for the traumatic stress syndrome he developed after seeing an Army buddy killed during his Vietnam service in 1969. Oh, spare us, pleeez!

Even worse, he's claiming protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That's an offensive use of a law so important to people who struggle daily with their painful ailments. This man may not be normal, but his disability is more mental than physical. A judge should throw out his case as an abuse of the legal process. He says he deserves treatment and sympathy. Not from this blogger.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

What a day!

It was freezing rain, or was it sleet? Either way, it was cold, it was windy, it was wet. And oh the aching arms and back muscles after scraping the snow off the car and the ice from the car windows. But what should we expect in mid-February? We've been spared the white-knuckle drives to and from work so far this winter. Once safely inside, the ice-laden trees made for a pretty sight. And seeing any broken limbs or fallen trees en route made us appreciate how fragile trees may be when pelted by ice.

It was also a day for dreaming of warmer times. Fortunately, it's time for "pitchers and catchers.'' That's a term of art for us baseball fans. Yes, spring training time is upon us. Read the sports pages or catch a report on the radio or online and there's news from Florida and Arizona. Who cares if it's usually just a puff piece of little consequence. It feels so good, so warm, so bright and so unlike our morning in snowy-icy-rainy New Jersey.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Getting voting right

Here it is more than six years since the 2000 presidential election was decided in the courts because of voting challenges and the nation still hasn't solved the problem. We don't have foolproof machines in place everywhere. Too many of them don't provide a paper trail for use in case of malfunctions or for recounts.

And we read today that it's a New Jersey problem. Voter-rights activists are going to court to challenge the use of electronic machines used in 18 counties that they say were never tested and are susceptible to fraud.

Voting is a right that cannot be tampered with. We all must have faith that our votes will be counted. This is not getting the priority it should, from Washington and in too many state capitals. State election officials should share their voting-machine experience and determine which ones should be recommended to their counterparts elsewhere. And it's long past time for New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt's bill to require a paper record of all electronic-machine votes to win congressional approval and the president's signature. If cost is raised as an issue, consider the cost in lost public confidence if we leave voting in doubt.

Friday, February 09, 2007


White-collar crimes, especially those pulled by scam artists, are somehow considered less serious than other offenses. Don't tell that to the folks at Ocean County College, the United Way of Ocean County and the Berkeley Little League. Each of these nonprofits was pledged big bucks by an anonymous donor, Edward Devine, who, it turns out, doesn't have the money to give. Is reneging on a pledge a crime? Probably not. It's just a promise to pay, not a contractual obligation. But the organizations all took actions based on his supposed generosity. There should be some recourse.

In OCC's case, Devine's $2.5 million pledge helped keep the planetarium open. His $500,000 donation put the United Way one third closer to its fundraising goal. And the Little League was ready to complete its ballfield complex with the $350,000 the donor promised. Now, they're all back to ground zero. And what about the two scholarships the league gave out based on the donation? Or any OCC personnel who gave up outside job offers to stay with the planetarium? Or any other donations made to these groups inspired by the anonymous giver?

Robert Everett, president of the Little League, undoubtedly spoke for many others when he said: "When someone comes and offers you that kind of money, you don't run a credit report on him. You say 'Thank you.''' Have we reached the point where nonprofits have to check on the creditworthiness of their donors? Afraid so, to guard against the Edward Devines of this world. Have these nonprofits lost their faith in generous donors? Let's hope not.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Edwards' "one America"

Did Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards think the media wouldn't check it out? His home, or rather his estate, in Orange County, N.C.? He's the candidate railing against "two Americas'' - one for the wealthy and one for the poor. He's the guy who launched his presidential bid from the back yard of a New Orleans woman who lost her home to Hurricane Katrina. The hypocrisy is hard to defend.

Edwards' property is 102 acres marked by no-trespassing signs, according to an Associated Press report. The home is 28,000 square feet with five bedrooms and six-and-a-half baths. A covered walkway connects it to "The Barn,'' complete with an indoor pool, basketball and handball courts, and a living area. Plus, the family has cleared land for a soccer field. If you want to buy it from Edwards, better bring at least $5.4 million, with the house valued at $4.3 million and the land at $1.1 million.

A man is entitled to live in a castle, assuming he can afford it. Edwards, a fabulously successful lawyer, obviously can afford it. But when he's on the stump talking about bridging the gap between the nation's rich and poor, he has some explaining to do. We know where he lives now.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Some yuks from Trenton

State Sen. Sharpe James, D-Essex, should do stand-up comedy. His defense of the Senate bill to ban dual officeholding by public officials Monday was that funny. Or sad. Here we have James, who served as mayor of Newark and also in the Legislature from 1999 through last year, holding himself out as the model for good-government reform.

"I never wanted to be a dual officeholder,'' James said. If not, why did he hold both posts - at the salary, pensions and power they brought - for seven years? "I voluntarily quit one to lead by example,'' he added. As memory serves, he abandoned his mayoral re-election bid when it became clear he was going to lose. If that was voluntary, oh well.

James didn't mention that he's expected to face a challenge from Newark Councilman Luis Quintana in his bid for re-election. Quintana, if elected, would have to choose only one post under the Senate version of the bill, which would be effective immediately, but could hold onto his local position under the Assembly version that would delay the ban until February and grandfather any dual officeholders. Funny how James neglected that self-serving distinction.

Monday, February 05, 2007

LaSane's last chance

Michael LaSane of Berkeley has one last chance to show some decency and spare the family and friends of Kathleen Stanfield Weinstein of Tinton Falls, the teacher he is charged with killing, the pain of reliving her horrifying last moments and death 11 years ago. He is scheduled to stand trial Tuesday in Toms River on charges of felony murder, murder, kidnapping, robbery and carjacking. If convicted of all charges, he could face life plus 60 years in prison. That'll mean he will never be freed again, which is really what he deserves.

But he could still plead guilty, and maybe get a somewhat reduced term -- as long he never sees the light of day. This would save court time and, more importantly, save Weinstein's family and legion of friends from her Middletown teaching days the agony of watching her final hours unfold for the jury. The star exhibit would be the 46-minute videocassette she recorded of her pleas to her abductor to spare her life. LaSane's lawyer is trying to bar that recording, which would be an injustice.

It's long past time for justice in this case. The survivors deserve closure after 11 years. And LaSane doesn't deserve any mercy, whether he cops a plea or takes his chances before a jury.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Panic no joke

There's nothing funny about the reaction of Bostonians to the discovery Wednesday of numerous blinking electronic signs displaying a boxy-looking cartoon character. Some of the signs had protruding wires. Others resembled pipe bombs. So it's little wonder residents and officials feared their city was under attack. Highways, bridges and river traffic were shut down. Bomb squads were dispatched. All for nothing, as the devices were an advertising gimmick for a Cartoon Network show.

The following day, some people were having a good laugh over the Boston response. After all, similar devices were placed in nine other cities and folks there didn't panic. But why not? In the post-9/11 world, law enforcement officials have encouraged anyone who sees anything suspicious to report it to authorities. In the eyes of people who didn't know better, this cartoon-looking thing was suspicious. Better to be safe than sorry.

Turner Broadcasting, the Cartoon Network's parent company, is probably chuckling over all the publicity for its show. Maybe a claim by Boston for the cost of the response - materials used, overtime paid, whatever - will temper its glee.