Innocent referee or unethical trustee?

BBOED trustee netted in volleyball bruhaha

BBOED Trustee Denis Wilbeck officiated volleyball games while serving as trustee.
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BBOED Trustee Denis Wilbeck officiated volleyball games while serving as trustee.

Is it unethical for a high school volleyball referee to officiate games for Bayonne High School while serving as a trustee on the Bayonne Board of Education? The answer is central to a mini scandal facing BBOED Vice President Denis Wilbeck, who received $671 from the district for officiating several Bayonne High School volleyball matches since 2015. Wilbeck sent a letter to the BBOED business administrator in late January that said someone suggested to Wilbeck that his officiating is a conflict of interest, which the board attorney later confirmed.

“I’ve never been notified, nor was I aware of, a conflict of interest for volleyball coaching in any respects.” — Denis Wilbeck

“This is an honest mistake,” said Wilbeck, who has been officiating middle, high-school, and college volleyball matches for 22 years. “For BHS, I’ve never been notified, nor was I aware of, a conflict of interest for volleyball coaching in any respects. I’ve never been notified by the business administrator or county officials.”

Resident Peter Franco filed an ethics complaint with the N.J.School Ethics Commission alleging Wilbeck created a “lens of impropriety” and that he “acted in a matter where he had financial involvement which might have reasonably impaired his objectivity or independence of judgment.”

Payback

Wilbeck has since reimbursed the district the $671 he was paid during his time as a board trustee. The confusion appears to have been in the distinction between being an independent contractor and an employee of the school district. Wilbeck referees for three volleyball organizations that place him according to volleyball program schedules along the East Coast. He said that he thought he was considered an independent contractor and therefore was not guilty of conflict of interest. Volleyball league officials assign referees to games without approval from the schools.

“It’s implied that I gave preferential treatment to Bayonne teams,” Wilbek said. “That’s not the case. The games I did were freshmen games. They’re instructional level competitions. Each one played; BHS freshmen lost.”

From now on, Wilbeck will not officiate games for Bayonne High School or other schools in the county. He can continue to officiate games elsewhere.

“He admitted he made the mistake, and he shouldn’t have done it,” said BBOED President Joseph Broderick. “He returned the money and promised he wouldn’t do any more games. I don’t think Denis did it to make a lot of money. I don’t think it was meant to be harmful.”

Whether anyone on the board or in the public will file an official ethics charge remains to be seen.

Politics at play

It is true that Denis Wilbeck was in violation of state law. Trustees cannot be directly employed by the district they serve. Some say that he was aware he was breaking the rules all along and that he was advised of the conflict of interest long ago. Wilbeck denies that.

The scandal may be tied to the superintendent search. Four trustees, including Wilbeck, are barred from voting because they family members employed by the district.

If an ethics charge is filed and the state follows through, Wilbeck could theoretically be removed from the board. If the new hire did not have a conflict of interest, it would open up the board to another potential vote in the superintendent search. This, however, seems unlikely.

Rory Pasquariello can be reached at roryp@hudsonreporter.com. For updates on this and other stories keep checking www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter.