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Crime-and-courts
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State finds evidence of ethics violations in Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office

An investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office has found evidence to support a number of alleged ethics violations, including lying, nepotism and mishandling of funds and a vehicle by Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner and his first assistant prosecutor.

The allegations stem from two complaints. One was filed by a county resident and another was filed by three former employees of the county Prosecutor’s Office who are also suing Tyner over their dismissal. Both complaints date to 2018 and 2019 and were concluded this month, according to copies of the letters the Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity mailed out Monday.

The Prosecutor’s Office did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. Tyner and First Assistant Prosecutor Cary Shill were named as the subjects in the ethics complaints.

Among the allegations sustained by the investigation:

Shill inappropriately used a victim witness vehicle outside its specified purpose, then appeared to retaliate against an employee who complained.

Tyner violated Atlantic County policy by supervising his brother, Agent Michael Graham.

Tyner failed to recuse himself from a matter in which he had previous, unfavorable knowledge of a complainant and a conflict involving a prominent minister’s relative. He used that knowledge to influence the assistant prosecutor assigned to the case, the office reported.

Tyner told a community group that a file marked “NIM” stood for “non-important murders” and represented homicides of Black and minority residents that hadn’t been fully investigated by previous prosecutors.

Tyner’s comments were “an attempt to build trust between the ACPO and the community,” the investigation found, adding Tyner had no “firsthand knowledge that such files existed.”

The report also partially sustained two additional allegations:

Tyner and Shill mishandled forfeiture funds, although the letter noted the inaccurate entries were not “made in furtherance of a nefarious purpose.”

As prosecutor, Tyner did not recuse himself from a case involving a local doctor who had appeared in court before him in a civil case when he was a Superior Court judge.

Eleven other allegations were either not sustained or determined to be unfounded. In one allegation, investigators reported a stronger term, listing “exonerated” as the result of an investigation into Tyner and Shill’s handling of information related to personnel involved in the investigation of the 2012 murder of April Kauffman.

Former Atlantic County Assistant Prosecutors Diane Ruberton and Donna Fetzer and former Prosecutor’s Office Lt. Heather McManus leveled the charges against Tyner. The three women also have an ongoing lawsuit alleging discrimination, retaliation and other illicit behavior by Tyner and the Prosecutor’s Office.

Michelle Douglass, their attorney, declined to comment on the attorney general’s letter.

During a community event in July 2019, Tyner told a group of more than 100 people gathered at Atlantic City’s Dolphin Field he had been surprised to find out that some homicide investigations, particularly those with Black or minority victims, had been marked with the letters “NIM,” a notation, according to a report by BreakingAC.com.

“This investigation also found that Prosecutor Tyner had no firsthand knowledge that such files existed,” according to the letter.

New Jersey officials react to the Chauvin verdict

"While New Jersey has long led the way in police training and criminal justice reform, we still have a long way to go, as a County, as a State, and as a Country. We must continue to have real conversations and dialogue between our communities and law enforcement, which will make us stronger and break down the barriers of distrust."

The attorney general has implemented corrective actions deemed appropriate, according to the letter.

“Your allegations about Prosecutor Tyner’s financial issues were probed, however this investigation did not find sufficient evidence to conclude that these issues impacted his decision making as Prosecutor,” counsel Richard T. Burke wrote in his letter to Douglass.

The letter comes two months after the county reached a $230,000 settlement with Matthew Davidson, a former assistant prosecutor. Davidson accused Tyner of unethical behavior including doing political favors.

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Local
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New Jersey's largest arcade planned for Showboat

ATLANTIC CITY — Gone are the roulette tables and slot machines that were once at the Showboat Atlantic City Hotel. In their place is a sea of arcade games stretching across more than 100,000 square feet.

During a press event Thursday afternoon, Bart Blatstein, CEO of Tower Investments Inc. and owner of the Showboat, donned an albino Burmese python, named Banana Peel, around his shoulders to introduce the first completed stage of his family-friendly entertainment venue: The Lucky Snake at Showboat.

“The name of the arcade and sports bar is The Lucky Snake, and friendly snake, why is he looking at me like that?” Blatstein said while Banana Peel got closer to his face.

The venue, slated to open May 15, will include an arcade — the largest in the state — a sports bar, performance stages, a speakeasy and improved meeting spaces.

“Atlantic City was always America’s playground,” Blatstein said. “What better way to kick off the family-friendly resort, the Showboat, than to open up the largest arcade and sports bar in New Jersey?”

The venue, which is expected to create 100 jobs, will also complement Showboat’s proposed 103,000-square-foot, $97 million indoor water park. Blatstein said he hopes to break ground on the project by the end of next month.

“We couldn’t be more excited,” Blatstein said. “Atlantic City is deserving of it (the venue), and we’re thrilled to be here.”

Blatstein has been a developer for more than 43 years and has overseen large-scale projects across Philadelphia.

In Atlantic City, however, Blatstein hasn’t always had the best luck. His venture to transform The Pier Shops at Caesars into an entertainment-and-shopping facility failed, resulting in him eventually selling the property back to Caesars.

Asked to compare his experience developing in Philadelphia versus Atlantic City, Blatstein said it’s similar.

“It’s similar. Everybody wants progress,” Blatstein said. “Everybody wants good development.”

Blatstein invested $7 million into The Lucky Snake.

“These are the types of development opportunities that we always talk about,” Mayor Marty Small Sr. said. “When we talk about diversifying the great city of Atlantic City, this is a complete and total game changer.”

Small described the new venue as “Dave & Busters and more, on steroids.”

“I’m thrilled that we’ll have this family attraction here,” Small said. “When you talk about families and diversifying the economy, once again this is it.”

The arcade will feature games including a large crane, classics from the 1980s, virtual reality, basketball, pinball and skee ball. Prizes will range from candy to designer purses, jewelry, cars, motorcycles and all-inclusive vacations, officials said.

The arcade’s reward program will be comparable to the most advanced and favored customer loyalty programs in the casino industry, they said. Packages offering guests unlimited game play or game play with food and beverage also will be available.

The 25,000-square-foot sports bar will include an esports gaming area and a boxing ring.

Live entertainment will be programmed seven days a week at the indoor entertainment venues, which will have host areas for music performances and street performers.

In addition to the water park and Lucky Snake, Blatstein plans to build a domed outdoor concert hall next to the hotel along with a beer garden and a sun deck.

Blatstein said those projects should be open by summer 2022.


Govt-and-politics
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Peter J. Miller receives royal sendoff after 31 years as Egg Harbor Township administrator

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — After 31 years on the job, Peter J. Miller thought he could slink out of the spotlight as only the second administrator in the township’s history and start his retirement May 1 without much fuss.

The five-member Township Committee and other municipal officials had other plans as Miller, 68, was surprised with a nearly hourlong tribute at the start of Wednesday’s regularly scheduled meeting.

“He (Miller) served 32 separate township committees, which were made up of 25 individuals during his tenure,” said Deputy Mayor Laura Pfrommer. “During his time as township administrator, Egg Harbor Township was the fastest-growing municipality between 1990 and 2020. ... The township gained 20,000 residents between 1994 and 2008.”

All of the committee members thanked Miller for the knowledge he bestowed on them over the years.

Miller walked into the meeting thinking he would only receive a wooden rocking chair, the traditional township retirement gift for employees, but much more was planned.

The committee meets in the multipurpose room of the Community Center, and there is a covered stage behind where the five-member committee sits.

Cynthia M. Domino, artistic director at Cygnus Creative Arts Centre, walked out from behind the curtain. Cygnus is a nonprofit arts agency based in the township. Miller was a founding director and the president from its incorporation until this year.

Two dancers performed a segment from “La Boutique Fantasque,” also known as “The Magic Toy Shop.” In the past, Miller made his acting debut on stage as the wizard in this ballet, and a mannequin was on stage Wednesday with his face on it.

The Egg Harbor Township High School drumline came through the multipurpose room and made everyone walk to the other side of the building, where there was a dedication of the Peter J. Miller Arts Wing with a separate plaque with a photo of him on it.

Miller oversaw the construction of the Community Center, and Cygnus was invited to be a part of the proposed Community Center in 2005 when it outgrew its original home. In 2008, Cygnus moved into the Community Center, which houses its classes, performances, workshops and art shows.

“Thank you so much for keeping the arts alive,” Domino said. “You have left an indelible mark for all generations.”

There was not enough time to mention all of Miller’s projects that benefited the township, but Pfrommer touched on a few.

During Miller’s first decade as administrator, he dealt with water contamination in many sections of the township and worked with the New Jersey Spill Fund to provide water to affected homeowners at a reduced cost.

Miller lobbied the state Pinelands Commission to reduce the township’s prescribed density from 33,000 house units to 22,000 in the Regional Growth Zone when he realized the opening of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City in 2003 would generate a housing boom in the township.

He led the development and expansion of Tony Canale Park along with the expansions of Veteran’s Memorial Park and Childs Kirk Park. He negotiated with developers to acquire the tract of land that is now Bargaintown Park. He worked with community members to bring the township’s nature reserve to fruition.

He negotiated a host community benefit with the Atlantic County Utilities Authority, which yields the township more than $2.5 million annually.

He played a role in bringing the municipal golf course online through the permit process of the state Department of Environmental Protection. McCullough’s Emerald Golf Links was the first golf course in this state built on a closed landfill without any state assistance.

A succession of speakers took to the microphone to applaud Miller, talk about what he meant to them and his contribution to the township.

Atlantic County Counsel James Ferguson attended on behalf of county Executive Dennis Levinson and presented Miller with a proclamation designating April 21 Peter Miller Day in Atlantic County.

Frank X. Balles, a former township committeeman and current member of the Atlantic County Board of Commissioners, said state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, sent a commendation that will be on file in the state Legislature.

Former Republican Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough spent more than 30 years in office in the township, 29 of them as mayor, before retiring from politics in 2018. He remembered reviewing Miller’s application for the job in 1989. When they met, they spoke for two hours.

McCullough told Miller at the beginning that he was not coming to his house for dinner and vice versa because if residents thought Miller was his guy, then Miller would lose his job whenever McCullough was out of office. He also said it was unusual for such a large township to have an administrator last that long.

“Peter Miller is an absolute asset to the township,” McCullough said. “Whatever we paid him, he was worth four times that.”

At the end of the presentation, Miller said he always tried to keep a low profile as an administrator. It’s the elected officials, who run for office, who receive all the accolades.

“(To) say I’m overwhelmed is an understatement. I thought I would be able to sneak out the door with my rocking chair,” he said.

“My success was not something I was able to accomplish by myself. The township has had a very good staff and team of employees,” Miller said. “Most of my staff has been with me, 14, 15 years. ... The professionalism that the staff has shown over the years has made my job so much easier.”

Miller said he does not know what he will do when he wakes up May 1 and doesn’t have to worry about the township. He also thanked his family, who made many sacrifices over the decades because of his schedule of meetings.

“The stability in the township contributed to my success as an administrator,” Miller said. “I thank you all for coming out tonight. ... I hope I left the town a better place than I found it.”

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Egg Harbor Township Nature Reserve to serve as backdrop for outdoor art exhibit

Egg Harbor Township Administrator Peter Miller speaks at a committee meeting in November 2017. The 68-year-old is retiring effective May 1.


Damon Tyner, Atlantic County Prosecutor.


Education
Ocean City to Murphy: Expand outdoor gathering limits for proms and graduations

Ocean City students and school officials are calling on Gov. Phil Murphy to expand outdoor gathering limits ahead of the 2021 prom season.

A change.org petition started by a high school student in Ocean City, Summer Raab, has garnered 755 signatures and asks the state to allow “all seniors to be able to attend prom.”

“Just recently we started school again five days a week. Over 1,200 kids are inside with masks on. The new rule is only 200 kids allowed at prom OUTSIDE,” Raab wrote in her petition. “There are 333 kids in our graduating class. If 1,200 kids can be inside with no ventilation why can’t 333 kids attend their first and last ever prom?”

Last year, most schools canceled proms for their high school students as the yearly spring event coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and statewide shutdown in New Jersey. Some schools found creative solutions to offer students in lieu of the formal year-end dance.

Middle Township hosted its “front porch prom,” inviting students to dress up and dance on their front porches, while After Prom Committee members drove around and handed out prizes. Ocean City held a red carpet event similar to a promenade for its seniors, inviting them to dress to impress and be recognized.

This year, districts are being more creative, and many, including Ocean City, are holding their prom outdoors. Ocean City’s is scheduled for May 22 on its football field. Others districts, like Greater Egg Harbor Regional, which operates three area high schools, will offer two prom sessions at each school to give all students an opportunity to attend.

{span style=”background-color: #ffffff;”}The petition was started after news spread around the Ocean City School District that prom would be limited to a lottery this year because of the outdoor limits still in place due to the pandemic.{/span}

Ocean City’s superintendent and school board president have also sent a letter to the state requesting Murphy to exempt high school proms and graduations from the current 200-person outdoor event limit.

“If you cannot grant this request, we ask that you significantly raise the capacity limit to ensure that a school’s full class of seniors can attend prom and graduate tighter — as one united group,” reads the letter from Superintendent Kathleen Taylor and school board President Joseph Clark.

The letter cites weddings as being exempt from the 200-person limit under current state rules, and says the students who are attending prom already interact on a daily basis within the schools.

“There is no added risk in allowing these same students to assemble outdoors for event that will provide them with more traditional school experiences,” the letter states.

At a COVID-19 response briefing earlier this month, Murphy indicated changes would likely be coming soon.

“We definitely will be updating guidance on graduations and proms. I’ll be very surprised if our numbers don’t go up,” Murphy said April 12. He said Wednesday during another briefing he expected to provide updated guidance on reopening the state next week.

On March 29, Murphy signed an executive order that increased outdoor gathering limits from 25 to 200, exempting weddings, religious services, political activity and government meetings.

The order states that certain events like weddings, “which typically happen once in a lifetime, provide benefits to the well-being of the participants such that they can be treated differently from casual social gatherings such as house parties.”

The order also states that catered celebrations have an established list of attendees, facilitating better contact tracing efforts.

PHOTOS from Ocean City High School prom 2019

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