Written by Elaine Piniat
A complaint alleging Freeholder Lillian Burry had a conflict of interest in the Burke Farm open space deal will be heard in Monmouth County Superior Court after a judge ruled to deny the county’s request to dismiss it.
In a judicial ruling decided on July 31, Judge Lawrence Lawson stated that whether Burry had a conflict of interest that needs to be “explored further.” Burry voted in favor of funding an easement on open space owned by Manalapan Township Committee Member Andrew Lucas, who hosted a fundraising event for Burry.
“The fact that Freeholder Burry voted on a matter affecting a supporter that hosted a fundraiser does not, on its face, prove that Freeholder Burry had a conflict of interest; however, it is something that needs to be explored further,” Lawson said in his written opinion.
In February, the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholdersvoted to approve a resolution to disburse money from the Open Space Trust Fund to acquire a development easement for its farmland preservation program.
Diamond Developers at Burke Farm, LLC, in which Lucas held an ownership interest, owned the property subject to the resolution. Lucas held a fundraiser in October 2011 in support of Burry as well as Manalapan Township Committee members who were running for re-election.
During the public comment period for the matter, Lawrence Luttrell asked Burry to abstain from voting on the resolution, claiming she had a conflict of interest. Burry proceeded to vote in favor of the deal in February.
Luttrell, a Democratic freeholder candidate, is representing Residents Against Government Exploitation in this case. The complaint against Monmouth County was filed in April.
The Freeholders voted to acquire a development easement for property worth more than $1.1 million, Lawson said. The resolution was approved by a vote of 3-2, with Burry voting in favor of the deal.
“…Any indirect personal interest may require disqualification,” Lawson said, referencing Wyzkowski v. Rizas, a case that considered whether planning board officials appointed by a mayor had personal or financial interest in the outcome of a development application submitted by the mayor.
“That case also provides that an actual conflict is not the decisive factor, rather, the potential for conflict is what governs,” he said. “That case also states that any potential conflict needs to be scrutinized by the Court.”
The court will be scrutinizing the alleged conflict of interest between Burry and Lucas, he said.
Burry, who did not return calls for comment, was instructed not to comment on the matter, according to County Counsel Andrea Bazer.
Bazer said the next step in the case will be discovery, and that no further court dates have been set. She would not comment on Lawson’s decision or the potential outcome if Lawson rules that there was a conflict of interest.
“I cannot comment on an ongoing litigation matter,” she said.
Had the current Freeholders not repealed the Board of Ethics that the Democrats established in 2009, there would not be a need for this lawsuit, Luttrell said.
“There would be a watchdog that would’ve prevented something like this from happening,” he said. “It should’ve been stopped long before I came into the picture.”
Luttrell said he was not surprised the judge wanted to look into the Burke Farm deal further.
“It’s absolutely insane that Burry was allowed to engage, debate and then vote on this thing,” he said.
Should the judge rule there was a conflict of interest, the resolution authorizing the purchase could be invalidated and Lucas would have to return the open space funds, Luttrell said.
“It’s pretty high stakes,” he said.