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April 2, 2008

DOT aide on bridge project charged

By TERRY • GAUTHIER MUESSIG
STAFF WRITER

Allegedly forged clerk's signatur

HIGHLANDS — A 22-year veteran of the state Department of Transportation has been charged with falsifying the borough clerk's signatures on documents related to the replacement of the Highlands-Sea Bright bridge.

James J. Duffy, 56, of Morrisville, Pa., was charged Tuesday with falsifying or tampering with records, a fourth-degree crime.

But the charges against Duffy will not stop the project from moving forward, said Erin Phalon, a DOT spokeswoman.

Duffy was one of the state liaisons working with the borough on the transfer of property needed for the bridge construction project.

On July 12, 2006, Duffy twice forged the signature of Borough Clerk Nina Light Flannery on documents identified as agreements of sale for the transfer of parcels 122 and 123 to the state, according to the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office.

According to tax records filed with the county tax office, Parcel 122 is identified as a "public dock" area near Moby's Restaurant. The property is 4,893 square feet. Parcel 123 is 0.223 acres consisting of a beach area and a park on South Bay Avenue.

After a public hearing on Oct. 17, the borough officially transferred the site to the state in exchange for property on Route 36.

Also, Prosecutor Luis A. Valentin said, Duffy notarized the phony signatures he endorsed on each of the agreements.

When reached at his home, Duffy said, "I have no comment. I'm sorry," before hanging up.

Motive unknown

First Assistant Monmouth County Prosector Peter E. Warshaw said he could not comment on what motive there would be for forging the clerk's signature. If convicted, Duffy could face a jail sentence of up to 18 months, Warshaw said.

Phalon did not know whether Duffy is suspended from his state job. In 2006, Duffy earned $65,502, according to the state Department of Treasury.

"The DOT is moving ahead with the project," Phalon said. "Our contractor will continue to do so. They (the contractor) still has the right of way access to that property."

The project — which would replace the 75-year-old, 35-foot-high drawbridge with a 65-foot fixed span — has been controversial. Opponents of the $124 million plan say the replacement bridge would be twice the height of the existing structure. Views of the Twin Lights national historic landmark nearby would be affected.

"Very interesting," James Parla of Portland Road said when he learned about the charges made against Duffy. "I think this is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope they (the DOT and prosecutors) dig deeper."

Parla is a member of the Citizens for Rational Coastal Development, a grass-roots group whose mission is to have the existing bridge repaired or replaced with an identical structure. The public learned the scope of the project in June. The DOT held two meetings, one in Sea Bright and one in Highlands, to inform the public of the pending project. Since that time, the citizens group has been questioning the state and the borough for its land swap deals.

Lawyer critical

"This is a breach of public confidence," said Stuart Lieberman of Princeton, an attorney representing the group.

"The DOT was dishonest when testifying in the federal court about the dates it planned on demolishing the existing bridge and now this. This has been a dirty project since the beginning. This smells so bad — and the smell is going to get worse," Lieberman said.

Mayor Anna Little said she learned about the charge late Tuesday.

"I would have to defer a comment until we (borough officials) confer with our attorney," Little said.

However, she did say, "We will follow this closely and will make sure everything is done to the letter of the law."

Flannery would not comment on the case but Little said the clerk was shaken by the news.

The investigation was conducted by the Prosecutor's Office and the DOT's Internal Affairs Bureau.