Criminal charges filed against a small-town mayor in a sewage scandal is a very New Jersey kind of story, but in a sort of “heads I win, tails I win” deal, it’s unlikely to affect the outcome of the general election.
The state attorney general announced on Friday that it is prosecuting Wrightstown Mayor Thomas E. Harper for lying to investigators about a deal that allowed the operations manager of the local municipal utilities authority to dump more than 565,000 gallons of sewage without paying for it.
The 69-year-old Republican has held public office in Wrightstown, a tiny borough in northeastern Burlington County will a population of about 800, for 27 years. He’s been mayor since 2004.
Harper declined to comment to the New Jersey Globe about the charges against him and would not say if he plans to remain in the race for a fifth term as mayor.
It’s unlikely that the state’s case against Harper will be completed by the November 3 election.
Democrats did not nominate a candidate to run against Harper and it’s too late for Republicans to replace the mayor on the general election ballot without going to court.
In an election being conducted primarily through vote-by-mail ballots – voting will begin this month — it might be too late for Democrats to mount a write-in campaign against Harper.
The lone Democrat on the borough council is 88-year-old Laurance Lownds, who told the Globe that he has no interest in running for mayor.
“Given my age and my health, I’m sure this is my last dance,” said Lownds, a U.S. Air Force veteran who spent 19 years on the New Hanover Board of Education and has been a councilman for the last 29 years.
Wrightstown is a Democratic-leaning town – over its 340 registered voters, 129 are Democrats and 93 are Republicans – and Hillary Clinton won 58% against Donald Trump there in 2016. Bob Menendez and Andy Kim both carried Wrightstown in 2018, but Kim Guadagno beat Phil Murphy there by five votes in 2017 and Republican Assemblyman Rob Clifton (R-Matawan) and Ronald Dancer (R-Plumsted) both carried it in 2019.
Still, Wrightstown has no formal Democratic party structure and no Democratic municipal chair.
“Write-ins are complicated. We don’t have a lot of time,” said Burlington County Democratic Chairman Joseph Andl. “I’m not ruling it out, but it’s an uphill battle.”
Harper faces up to 18 months in prison.
If Harper subsequently resigns or is removed from office by a judge, the Wrightstown Republican county committee can submit three names to the borough council, who would then appoint a new mayor to serve until the result of the 2021 general election are certified.
Because of Wrightstown’s diminutive size, the borough has just one voting district and two county committee members: Mayor Harper and his wife.
Harper is the GOP municipal chairman.
Unless a plea agreement or a judge’s ruling also mandates Harper’s resignation from his county committee seat, Harper and his wife would select the three mayoral candidates.
If Harper is forced out of his party post, then his wife, as the lone county committee member, would pick the three candidates.
Word of Harper’s potential legal troubles has been circulating through Wrightstown for nearly a year.
The New Jersey State Comptroller reported in September 2019 that Harper and Rodman Lucas, the operations manager for the sewerage authority, entered into an improper waste disposal arrangement that benefited Lucas’s private waste disposal company.
They found that Lucas’s company, Aqua Clean Toilet Systems, didn’t may to dump sewage in Wrightstown, saving an estimated $21,000 over a three year period. A criminal referral was made to the attorney general’s office.
Lucas pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to tamper with public records and for failing to report that waste disposal to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
He is awaiting sentencing.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal says that Harper, the chairman of the Wrightstown Municipal Utilities Authority, made false statements to investigators.
Harper is accused of telling investigators during a sworn interview that he sporadically reviewed records maintained by Lucas and said that he had entered into an unspecified barter agreement with his employee.
Lucas never maintained records, prosecutor’s claim.
Wrightstown is the 22nd-smallest municipality in New Jersey and is the host community for the Mid-State Correctional Facility – the prison houses about 700 adult male inmates, mostly with a sex-offender status – and a portion of the Joint Base McGuire-Fort Dix.