‘I’m the Mayor, everything’s mine’: Misconduct charges filed by volunteer firefighter against city official

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WOODBRIDGE, NJ- Let’s just call this small-town politics at its finest—or at its worst.

A clash between two officials in Woodbridge, New Jersey has gotten interesting, to say the least with allegations flying back and forth and with one of the men filing an official misconduct complaint with the state Attorney General’s Office, according to InsiderNJ.com.

The clash, between the town’s mayor John McCormac and former Council President and volunteer firefighter Ken Gardner is now having an impact on a local Democratic Primary election.

“It appear that Mayor John McCormac may have committed official misconduct in office,” Gardner said. “I was inline for a position at NJ Transit with a salary of approximately $140k.

According to former Governor’s Chief of Staff Peter Cammarano, McCormac blocked me from that position. I was later offered a position [in the purchasing department] at the Turnpike Authority for $58k. McCormac acted in a manner to hurt me in the amount of $82k per year.”

For his part, McCormac and his backers laugh off Gardner’s complaint, noting that it took him a while to report it.

“He couldn’t have been that offended if it took him a year and a half to report it,” said the mayor.

 

Apparently, there is a recording that ties McCormac into Gardner losing out on the position, which has sparked his recent complaint. What makes this story particularly interesting is that this isn’t just a story of two political rivals with a recent dislike of each other.

Their relationship goes back around 20 years, when both were actually political allies in the Republican party.

Gardner ran for council that year, 1991, and initially both McCormac and Gardner teamed up in an attempt to derail Democrat Jim McGreevey from winning the mayor’s race.

Gardner won his race and McGreevey, who somehow managed to turn McCormac from Republican to Democrat somewhere between the primary and the election. McCormac helped McGreevey in the town’s 4th Ward and he ascended to the mayor’s office.

After being installed as mayor, McGreevey paid McCormac back by installing him as Woodbridge’s chief financial officer.

How did Gardner fare? Aside from being elected to the council, he also became the youngest council president in the history of Woodbridge at the ripe old age of 25-years-old.

McGreevey was a typical small-town politician. According to the article, “if your kid jumped rope in front of your house, you’d get a mayoral proclamation, which served the dual purpose of having the mayor’s name on the wall of your family living room.”

One Woodbridge old-timer commented, “McGreevey would go to the opening of an envelope.”

McGreevey knew how to play the game and was a very popular mayor.

Four years later, Gardner, still council president thought it was time to go up against McGreevey in a town-wide run against McGreevey. He missed his perceived popularity by a lot and lost by a 2-1 margin.

McCormac had run the field operation for McGreevey, who had earned a reputation in local political circles as an astute politician who ran an outstanding field operation.

Gardner meanwhile began to experience a significant downturn in the fortunes of Republicans, and in 2010 changed his affiliation to Democrat. As noted, “the older Gardner generation had been Democrat so it wasn’t an unnatural fit.”

Despite some differences, both McCormac and Gardner were similar. In the case of McCormac, he knew how to take care of friends and punish enemies. McGreevey for his part liked to work foes to get them to come over to his side. Gardner had similar success.

McCormac? He liked to beat up enemies, metaphorically of course, and basically freeze them out to the side.

When asked at one time by InsiderNJ what he felt was the most important attribute in politics, he said, “relationships.”

In 2006, McCormac became mayor in a special election in Woodbridge. By that time, McGreevey had already won election as governor of New Jersey and had since left that office. McCormac was considered to be a fierce politician and had special skills in building alliances.

At some point during these ensuing years, the relationship between McCormac and Gardner grew contentious, although it has become strained initially when McCormac left the Republican Party.

Gardner became incensed when he believed McCormac had black-balled him with the NJ Transit job, and he started to become a vocal voice of opposition to McCormac’s development priorities in the town, often testifying at public meetings against McCormac’s priorities.

In December 2019 at the Woodbridge Firehouse District 1, Gardner told McCormac to his face that he opposed the mayor’s so-called pilot program, which was a 30-year tax abatement for a developer who was going to take the old Hess property in downtown Woodbridge and convert it to 1,200 downtown apartments.

Gardner is currently running in a Democratic primary against Councilwoman Nancy Drumm, a McCormac surrogate which has further added to the contentious relationship between the two men.

At the meeting in question, Gardner asked McCormac, “What’s up with that project on Main Street, all the apartments?”

“That’s the best taxpayer we’ve ever had in the history of Woodbridge Township,” said McCormac during the exchange, which was caught on tape by Gardner. “They never appealed their taxes since 1992 when I was the CFO. If they want to sell their property for apartments, I’m all in.”

That didn’t set well with Gardner.

“We’re getting beat up enough with traffic up there. I don’t get it,” Gardener said.

It was at this point that McCormac appeared to let it slip that he had been involved with Gardner’s NJ Transit job.

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“You want to someday let me help you and you came out against my project so forget it,” McCormac said. “Forget it. How can I help you when you came out against my project?”

“What do you mean ‘helped me?’” Gardner asked.

“Help you? I got you a turnpike job; you’re trying to get me to get you a promotion and you come out against my project,” McCormac said. “Don’t even talk to me anymore, I’m done with you.”

“Listen,” said Gardner, who has been a volunteer firefighter for 30 years, “you’re in my firehouse. If you want to leave, leave.”

“I’m not leaving,” McCormac said back.

“This is my firehouse, I’m a member here,” Gardner said.

“I’m the mayor, everything’s mine,” McCormac said.

“What, the firehouse belongs to you?”

“Everything’s mine,” McCormac said.

Got that? McCormac is the mayor, and seems to feel that by virtue of that position, he “owns” the town and everything in it.

Gardner believes that McCormac had actually admitted to official misconduct, or short of that behaved inappropriately.

New Jersey’s Official Misconduct Law is fairly clear on what is covered either as an act or omission under the statute. The law states in order to qualify, that must be coupled “with a purpose to obtain a benefit for himself or another,” or a purpose to injure another or deprive another of a benefit. Under the “required purpose,” it can be one of two types:

  • Where a defendant’s purpose is to obtain a benefit for him/her or another; and
  • Where a public servant seeks to injure some person or deprive them of a gain or advantage—by being denied or impeded in the exercise of some right or privilege (in other words being vindictive).

InsiderNJ notes that serving as a reference is a duty frequently done by mayors, and therefore “is clearly inherent in the nature of his office” according to the Official Misconduct law.

Gardner sad, “McCormac intended to intimidate me and stop me from opposing ‘our plans.’”

Gardner claims that by McCormac saying he “got me a Turnpike job,” that means he also had the capacity to block it. Gardner also said that when McCormac said, “Don’t even talk to me anymore. I’m done with you,” it showed he was withdrawing his reference because “I opposed his project. That is against the law.”

Gardner said that conversation was part and parcel of McCormac’s routine bullying, and claims that Cammarano, who was then serving as Gov. Phil Murphy’s chief-of-staff killed his job application after he had gotten contacted by McCormac.

Gardner said that as to him, it “is not illegal to ask for a reference. Or to ask him to stop blocking me for the $140k level I was originally heading for,” Gardner told the outlet.

Gardner said he was left with “no choice” as far as either taping the encounter with McCormac or his filing of an official complaint.

“While McCormac has been blocking me for years, I don’t get any enjoyment out of taping anyone or filing a complaint. He was just getting worse. I had no choice, and I don’t want him doing it to anyone else.”

Gardner also alleges that McCormac had sent him a text while he was at a town hall meeting where he objected to an application McCormac supported and while he was waiting to testify on a second application: “You want my help in getting a job and you speak out publicly against our plans? Seriously?’”

Gardner also made somewhat of a trite complain, saying that when he was elected to the Fire Commission, he was photo shopped out of a picture.

“When I was an Elected Fire Commissioner, McCormac’s team intentionally photos shopped me out of a picture that was in the Township’s magazine. That’s how political retribution starts—then you shut down the George Washington Bridge!”

For his part, Gardner said that McCormac is mad with power and he’s tired of him stepping on people and overstepping the bounds of his authority.

McCormac still believes that if Gardner was so distressed about the above recording, why did he wait until an election year to make an issue out of it.

Gardner believes that it’s a matter of credibility and wielding of political power. He thinks that McCormac has too much of it and it has gone to his head, making him arrogant, an arrogance he says that overcomes a lot of politicians who get too full of themselves and then get set up for a fall. We see it all the time.

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