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I-Team: NJ Town of 8,500 Spent Thousands on Wardrobe for its Public Works Chief

It’s not clear if the DPW chief is the only Bogota official who has gotten a tax-funded clothing allowance

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    NEWSLETTERS

    I-Team: NJ Town Gives Thousands for DPW Chief's Wardrobe

    An ethics violation in Bogota is now sparking a debate about a little-known government perk: Should public employees get tax-funded clothing allowances? One town official did, and the expense was approved by his wife. NBC 4 New York's Chris Glorioso reports.

    (Published Friday, July 12, 2019)

    What to Know

    • The Bogota Borough Council voted to pay the DPW Superintendent $2,000 to buy clothes in 2013 and '14, and his wife signed off on the payment

    • An ex-council member voted in favor of the allowance because he was misled into believing the boss' employment contract required the payment

    • The chief's wife says she wasn’t even in the room when the clothing allowance was voted on, and signing purchase orders was routine

    In Bogota, New Jersey, Public Works employees have tough jobs. They pick up the trash, manicure parks, and clear the snow. In short, they get dirty.

    But the head of the Department, DPW Superintendent Gordon Kohles, has enjoyed a perk that helps keep his wardrobe neat and clean.

    A taxpayer funded clothing allowance.

    The Bogota Borough Council voted to pay Kohles $2,000 to buy clothes in 2013 and 2014. The official purchase order shows the DPW chief’s wife, Lisa Kohles, signed off on the payment to her husband.

    “You had a wife signing off on public funds to be paid to her husband. That’s just not a good thing,” said Jorge Nunez, a former Borough Council Member who is critical of the way the clothing allowance was handled.

    Back in 2014, Nunez voted in favor of the clothing allowance, but he now says his approval came only after he was misled into believing Gordon Kohles’ employment contract required the payment. Lisa Kohles, who was then the Borough Council Finance Chair, recused herself from the clothing allowance vote, but Nunez says she took part in discussions seeking to persuade other lawmakers.

    “I thought it was problematic that his wife, who was a Councilperson at the time, was participating in these conversations."

    Kohles says she wasn’t even in the room when the clothing allowance was voted on, and signing purchase orders — like the one she signed for her husband — was nothing more than a routine duty.

    “I’m doing what I was expected to be doing as a Finance Chair – signing purchase orders. I didn’t vote on anything that pertained or had any benefit to [my husband],” Kohles told the I-Team.

    Earlier this year, New Jersey’s Local Finance Board issued a notice of violation to Lisa Kohles, stating that “her approval of municipal payment vouchers for her husband as the Borough of Bogota Supervisor of the Department of Public Works; and her participation in meetings and discussions (both open and closed sessions) concerning the Department of Pubilc Works. .. constitutes the use or attempted use of her official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for herself or others.”

    Kohles insists her political opponents, including Nunez, filed the ethics charges in an effort to damage her reputation. She said she is appealing the violation notice.

    In 2011, the New Jersey State Comptroller issued a report that found the state paid more than $4.8 million on clothing allowances for white collar workers. Authors of the report recommended New Jersey state agencies “eliminate the clothing allowance benefit for those employees who are not required to wear uniforms or other special clothing.”

    It’s not clear whether Gordon Kohles is the only Bogota official who has gotten a tax-funded clothing allowance.

    The I-Team left phone messages and an email for Joseph Scarpa, the town’s Borough Administrator. So far, he has not responded to questions about how many borough employees enjoy clothing allowances, whether DPW employees are required to wear uniforms, or whether Gordon Kohles continues to receive $1,000 per year for clothes under his current contract.

    Gordon Kohles did not respond to the I-Team’s request for comment, but his wife defended her husband’s clothing benefit, insisting taxpayers should contribute to his wardrobe because he often gets dirty – just like his staff.

    “He’s not a superintendent who just sits behind the desk,” Lisa Kohles said. “He could be mowing a lawn. He could be lifting something. He could be throwing garbage into a truck.”

    Before taking over as Bogota’s DPW Superintendent, Gordon Kohles served as a firefighter in Hackensack. His financial disclosure says he retired from the fire department with a NJ Police and Firemen’s Retirement System “accidental retirement” pension. Lisa Kohles said a workplace injury forced him to give up firefighting but she said the same injury does not impact his ability to work for the DPW.

    “It’s not like he’s lifting heavy machinery or doing heavy manual labor,” Kohles said. “He was hurt on the job, and it really has nothing to do with a clothing allowance.”

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