By John Burton
MIDDLETOWN — Brookdale Community College board members have instituted reforms during the past year that they believe will prohibit similar criminal activity that now has its former president facing a prison term.
Peter F. Burnham, the college’s president for nearly 20 years, pleaded guilty in a Monmouth County courtroom in Freehold on Tuesday, July 24, to two counts of official misconduct and one count of theft by deception for stealing what Monmouth County prosecutors said was $44,000 in college funds. He will be sentenced Sept. 21.
Jacob S. Elkes, chairman of Brookdale Community College Board of Trustees, said the board has “instituted a series of stringent controls.” Following the revelations that Burnham had used his college-issued credit card for personal use and purchases not related to college business, the board took steps to heighten financial oversight on the president’s and other administrators’ offices and their business expenses.
The college now has “a highly defined and multilayered purchasing and procurement policy,” not only for business expenses and reimbursements, but also for those with college contracts that require an outlay of school money, Elkes said.
For the president’s office, those “expenditures are subject to direct review and approval of the board of trustees,” Elkes said.
When Burnham was president, he circumvented existing policy, Elkes said.
“We have reversed all of that,” the chairman said, “having it more stringent than it had been at any time.”
The board also created the permanent position of internal auditor, who reports directly to the board, and a new board audit committee made up of four of the board’s 12 members.
“Their responsibility is to oversee the work of the internal auditor and to review the work of the external auditor,” he said. The committee will also “advise the board on matters involving the auditing process.”
To his knowledge, Elkes said, Brookdale is the only community college in the state with an internal auditor.
“These changes involve a change in culture across the whole college community,” he said, from the administration on down.
Elkes said the college now has closure on the Burnham issue.
Burnham resigned last year and was replaced July 1 by Maureen Murphy, the college’s first female president.
Burnham, 68, Colts Neck, pleaded guilty to stealing about $44,000 in college funds, by obtaining unwarranted expense reimbursements and for using the college credit card for an array of personal expenses and items, including travel, lodging, expensive meals, clothing and electronic equipment.
“You would use the credit card and Brookdale would pay, is that not right, Doctor?” Steven Secare, Burnham’s attorney, asked him in court. Burnham was somber and offered terse, single-word responses during the proceedings to questions posed by his lawyer and Superior Court Judge Thomas F. Scully.
In addition to those offenses, Burnham admitted he had applied for and was awarded federal financial aid for his son’s Monmouth University tuition, even though he received reimbursement from Brookdale for that cost, as part of his compensation package.
Burnham paid the university, received the reimbursement from Brookdale, and when Monmouth received the $20,000 in financial aid, the university then issued Burnham a check. He deposited in his checking account and spent it for his own use, according to Christopher J. Gramiccioni, acting county prosecutor.
Burnham’s son, who was not identified, was not a target of the investigation, according to Gramiccioni.
In exchange for his guilty plea, the prosecutor is recommending a five-year prison sentence with a two-year parole ineligibility. Burnham, who offered no statement in court, will have to make financial restitution in an amount to be determined, and will be ineligible to hold public office in New Jersey.
“In my experience it’s a sufficient sentence for a 68-year-old,” Gramiccioni said following the proceeding, acknowledging Burnham cooperated with the investigation. Secare and Burnham offered no comment as they left the courtroom.
On the prosecutor’s recommendation, Burnham will remain free on his own recognizance until his sentencing hearing scheduled for Sept. 21.
“Quite frankly, looking at the breach of the contract with the people of the county and what he did,” Monmouth County Freeholder Director John Curley said, “I would say Burnham is a very lucky man to have that plea agreement.
“I was proud to be the whistleblower on what had been transpiring at Brookdale,” said Curley, who is the freeholder liaison to the college.
Back in February 2011, Curley and Burnham argued over Burnham’s comments for the need for a tuition increase in light of the county’s plan to trim its financial support to the college.
Curley responded by demanding—and examining—the college’s budget line items and Burnham’s employment contract. Curley then made public his findings about the president’s perks, which included the tuition reimbursement; membership to an exclusive Middletown country club at $49,000 a year; a car; and a $1,500 a month housing allowance. Burnham’s 2010-11 contract paid him a $216,015 base salary.
Further examination of Burnham’s expenses resulted in his suspension without pay and finally his resignation, saying he was seeking retirement, but not before the prosecutor’s office took up an investigation and the board ordered an independent audit of the president’s office.
“I think they’ve taken some very positive approaches,” Curley said, of the college under its interim president, William Toms, a former State Police investigator the board brought in when the situation arose.
However, Curley still remains critical of the current board of trustees’ makeup and its law firm, calling for their resignation.
“It was a culture of cocktails and golf, golf and cocktails that allowed this to happen and that’s going to end,” he said, insisting the board will eventually be replaced through attrition, as the four-year terms expire.
“The board has always worked ethically, selflessly and generously as volunteers,” countered Elkes, a 15-year member of the board. To replace everyone, he said, “Would mean the board would be destabilized in that you would have the board made up of inexperienced people.”
Elkes also defended the board’s law firm, Wilentz, Goldman and Spitzer, in Woodbridge, as always offering ethical and sound advice.
John Hoffman, the board of trustees attorney, said “ We believe we’ve done excellent work for the board for the last five years and the board will have to make the decision if we are the appropriate counsel or not.”
The role of the attorney is to make sure the agreements are properly drafted and not to determine the amount of the compensation, Hoffman noted.
The freeholders appoint eight of the 12 members, with the governor naming two, and with the president and a student representative also serving.
Brookdale has approximately 40,000 students enrolled at its main campus in the Lincroft section of Middletown and at its satellite locations, in Long Branch, Neptune, Hazlet and Freehold.