By Maya Rao
Newspapers owe it to their readers to be watchdogs, but the impact of our stories ultimately depends on the reaction of decision-makers.
And sometimes that takes a while.
New Jersey State Comptroller Matthew Boxer issued a report Tuesday calling for increased penalties of state ethics violations laws after probing questionable land deals in Chesterfield, a small town where I had done my own investigation years before I moved to Minneapolis.
When people talk about New Jersey corruption, Chesterfield Township is not typically what they have in mind – a farming community of 7,000 people where a program to control development won national recognition and was even featured in the New York Times.
But in late 2008, when I worked as a suburban reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, a lawyer I had interviewed for a recent story suggested I look into questionable land deals in the town that had prompted his client to file a lawsuit.
The system was known as Transfer of Development Rights, and is used in more than 20 states to curb sprawl.
Instead of allowing new homes and businesses to run over farmland, Chesterfield decided it would cluster new homes, shops, and a school in its northwest corner. In return, developers would pay local farmers to preserve open land elsewhere in the township through a system of development credits.
Researching the program entailed poring over hundreds of pages of township committee and planning board meeting minutes and other records, but it didn’t take long to sense that there was a possible violation of state ethics laws.
Four of six developments in town were going forward after the developers paid $3.1 million for farmland preservation credits to farmers who were members of the Planning Board and who voted on the projects. The biggest beneficiary was Lawrence Durr, a township committeeman and Planning Board member who used his position to ease the way for a developer with whom he had a contract to preserve farmland. The developer ultimately paid Durr $2.37 million.
The story ran on the front page of the Inquirer in March 2009 but drew little reaction – people in the Philadelphia and New Jersey region are often jaded by the long parade of news stories about political officials who profit from their position. A few months later, I got a phone call from someone who said he was an investigator at the state Attorney General’s Office; he said he wanted to follow up, but I never heard anything again.
Now, the comptroller’s blistering investigative report – which reports the same findings as the 2009 story - says Durr’s actions were akin to insider trading, and that he broke state ethics laws and potentially criminal laws. Boxer, the comptroller, is pushing for state ethics violation fines to be increased from $500 to $10,000.
It only took four years for someone to take action.