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Burnham sentenced to five years

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Former Brookdale president will pay back $44,000 with accrued vacation time
Staff Writer

Peter Burnham, the former president of Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, is sentenced for the crimes of official misconduct and theft by deception. 
KEITH HEUMILLER Peter Burnham, the former president of Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, is sentenced for the crimes of official misconduct and theft by deception. KEITH HEUMILLER Peter Burnham is now in prison, after being sentenced to five years in prison on Nov. 30 and ordered to pay more than $44,000 in restitution for official misconduct and theft during eight years of his tenure as president of Brookdale Community College, Lincroft.

The sentence, which includes a mandatory two years without parole in state prison, was handed down by state Superior Court Judge Thomas F. Scully on Nov. 30 at the Monmouth County courthouse in Freehold Borough.

Burnham, 68, was then led from the room by two officers to the county jail in Freehold Township, where he will await placement in the state prison system.

Following the decision, Scully said the court’s punishment pales in comparison to the disgrace and shame Burnham brought upon himself and the college.

“No fine, no period of incarceration, no disposition by this court could ever come close to punishing you more than you have already punished yourself,” Scully said.

Attorneys for both sides acknowledged that Burnham plans to use his more than $36,000 in vacation time — accrued during his 20-year career with Brookdale — to repay the bulk of his debt to the county college.

Those debts, according to the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, were piled up through fraudulent expense account charges for hotels, meals and other expenses and a false claim for $20,000 in tuition assistance for his son.

Burnham, who admitted his guilt as part of a negotiated plea deal with the prosecutor’s office in July, will now be personally responsible for paying the remaining $8,000, which his attorney Steven Secare said he currently has no way of paying.

“His home is foreclosed, he’s got the Internal Revenue Service knocking on his door, he can’t pay his property taxes,” said Secare. “He’s lost any prospect for employment; he lost millions of dollars in compensation and pension pay. He’s at the edge of financial ruin.”

Burnham, who collected $216,000 a year as Brookdale’s president, was also granted a mortgage allowance, a complimentary vehicle, annual bonuses and a number of other benefits by the college.

Monmouth County Acting Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni said it was Burnham’s ego and greed that ultimately led to his downfall.

“When you tally the total real-time compensation this defendant was getting in that position, it exceeds $325,000 a year,” he said. “All of that wasn’t enough.”

While Burnham was serving as president, Gramiccioni said, “nobody messed with him.”

“He ruled with an iron fist and he knew it. He used that power and advantage to his financial and personal benefit,” the prosecutor said.

Gramiccioni detailed a number of facts uncovered in his office’s extensive investigation, including Burnham’s use of school funds to purchase Christmas presents for Brookdale staff members and book hotel rooms less than an hour’s drive from his home.

Secare, who asked the court for leniency for his client, said there would be no public benefit in sending “a broken man to prison.”

“For $44,000, he’s going to go and face a substantial prison term,” he said, listing a number of Burnham’s personal and professional achievements, including a “Community College President of the Year” award.

“Good people do bad things. In Dr. Burnham’s case, very good people do bad things,” the attorney said.

Secare, acknowledging there was little chance it could happen, said a man with Burnham’s skills and talents would be better off sentenced to community service rather than spending years behind bars.

He also catalogued Burnham’s health issues — which include diabetes and a previous battle with cancer — and described his client as “a broken and crumbling man.”

Gramiccioni said Burnham would receive adequate health care in prison and that his prison sentence, which had been previously agreed upon, would serve as a deterrent for future crimes.

“Considering this state’s history, plagued by corruption at all levels, I think it’s highly important to punish this defendant with a sentence of incarceration,” he said.

Burnham, who was dressed in a suit and tie, showed little emotion throughout the proceeding and did not react when his sentence was read.

He addressed the court prior to the sentencing, attempting to explain how a man at the pinnacle of his career could fall so far.

Quoting the final lines from “The Road Less Traveled,” a Robert Frost poem he taught students as an English professor, Burnham said he regretted taking the wrong path.

“Because of arrogance, failure, pride, ego, plain stupidity, I took that road and it made a difference that was bad for me,” he said. “I wish to stay on a good road. I wish to rehabilitate, I wish to become productive, I wish to stay productive.

“Forgive me for what I’ve done,” he added, “and try in some way to recognize and remember all the things that I did that were right and good.

“I regret my actions, I accept my responsibility, but I also appeal that you give me the opportunity to prove that I can continue to do better, that I can take the road not taken and make a difference.”

Scully, remarking that it was a “truly sad day,” said Burnham’s remorse and talent did not change the crimes he committed and the way he went about them.

“Reading the presentence report, you indicated you had an unfamiliarity with the criminal code, that all this could be resolved by some type of meeting,” Scully said. “There is no necessity of having a command of criminal law to understand the central aspect of professional integrity. There’s nothing exclusive to the criminal code with respect to the concept of honesty.”

Scully said Burnham had broken the trust of not only his co-workers and thousands of Brookdale students, but of all the taxpayers in Monmouth County.

“Someone who has so much talent, so many gifts, the capacity to do so much good, has betrayed so many who relied on him so much,” the judge said.

Burnham was convicted on two counts of official misconduct and one count of theft by deception. As part of his plea bargain — which significantly reduced the potential sentence he could serve — Gramiccioni said Burnham worked with the prosecutor’s office on another ongoing investigation. The details of that investigation are confidential, according to the prosecutor.

The two misconduct charges brought sentences of five years each and the theft charge carried a charge of four years. All of those sentences, according to Scully, will run concurrently.

For nearly eight years, according to the prosecutor’s office, Burnham falsely represented that certain expenses charged on two college-issued credit cards were related to official business, when in fact they were not. In many instances, Burnham falsely claimed his expenses related to his position as president, or his participation with certain education committees and associations, when no such business was conducted.

Once the monthly statements for schoolissued credit cards were received, said the prosecutor’s office, Burnham would present the statements to Brookdale executive staff after making false notations and representations to justify the expenses.

On other occasions, Burnham failed to provide any supporting receipts or provided non-itemized receipts, which ran against college policy.

Burnham resigned from his position in March 2011 after financial irregularities were discovered in his reimbursement paperwork and local officials, like Monmouth County Board of Freeholders Director John Curley, began calling for a full investigation.

Gramiccioni and the prosecutor’s office conducted that investigation.

2012-12-06 / Front Page

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