Councilwoman Beth Mason has demanded City Council action on her criticism that Councilman Ravi Bhalla and Council President Peter Cunningham voted to approve a contract for a city attorney while having relationships with the attorney that posed conflicts of interest.
The council voted two weeks ago on a $29,000 contract for Hoboken-based attorney Paul Condon, who is handling the administrative prosecution of suspended SWAT Lt. Angelo Andriani.
Condon has been handling similar proceedings for two years, but the contract in question was for prosecution of a new case regarding Andriani’s actions in January in a Tampa airport, during which he allegedly flashed a police badge.
“Your friend would have gotten his contract anyway.” – Theresa Castellano
Mason is also alleging that Bhalla’s business relationship with Condon – the two share an office in Hoboken although they are not law partners – should have precluded him from voting. The two attorneys also share a receptionist.
Resolution an ‘indictment’
Mason issued a press release making her allegations on Monday, and put forth a resolution just before the council meeting on Wednesday, calling for the vote on Condon’s contract to be invalidated. She also asked city attorney Michael Kates to investigate whether any violations occurred, and for Bhalla and Cunningham to recuse themselves from any further votes pertaining to Condon.
But Mason’s resolution presents many of the uncertainties about the situation as if they were facts. Thus, the majority of the council was not comfortable approving it.
Kates said during the meeting that the resolution “sounds like an indictment” and recommended that further discussion about the personal finances and business relationships of city employees (council members) be done in closed session and with them present.
Councilwoman Carol Marsh told Mason that if she believed there were ethical violations she should file ethics charges against the two councilmen.
The council majority, without Cunningham or Michael Lenz – both of whom were dealing with deaths of people close to them – was unable to table the measure. The council asked to amend Mason’s resolution to remove some of the statements. They also instructed Kates to freeze the contract for Condon until the matter has been investigated.
Bhalla said in an interview that he believes his relationship with Condon does not present a conflict. He said that before the original vote on the contract, he asked Kates in private whether Kates thought the matter presented a conflict for Bhalla. Both came to the conclusion that it did not, he said.
However, Mason suggested that the finances of one man affected the other. For instance, if Condon could not pay his rent, it might hurt Bhalla.
Bhalla admitted later in the week that if Condon would default on his portion of the lease, both men would be responsible for the remainder of the three-year lease, which expires on May 31, 2010.
At worst, Bhalla calculated that in that scenario, he hypothetically could be on the line for roughly $700, but he said it wouldn’t affect his business.
Bhalla said his only regret is not having asked Kates in open session, while the vote was going on, whether Kates thought he could vote. He said it would have allowed him to explain the situation and give the facts.
“If I made a mistake, it was not requesting a legal opinion on the record,” he said last week. “I would have made the public and my colleagues aware of my concerns.”
At the meeting, Bhalla said he has an obligation to vote when he believes there is no conflict.
“There was no conflict, and in my sound judgment there was no appearance of conflict,” he said.
He called Mason’s tactics “character assassination” and said he hopes her future press releases “relate to how you would act on substantive issues,” like the police audit.
Mason stands firm
Mason hasn’t wavered on her stance that both men had a conflict.
In Cunningham’s case, he is only prohibited by the local pay-to-play ordinance from voting if the contribution was taken within one year of the contract award. That time frame has passed.
Kates said the council was never asked by former Mayor David Roberts to vote on Condon’s initial contract, which would have been within the time frame.
Councilman Michael Russo supported Mason’s stance at the meeting. He said that when he was presented with a similar situation to Cunningham’s, he returned the contribution after it was brought to his attention by a local citizens’ group.
That contract was for attorney David Corrigan, who was hired as the city’s labor attorney and then lead investigator for the SWAT scandal.
Another ally, Councilwoman Theresa Castellano, asked why, with a 9-0 vote, that Cunningham and Bhalla didn’t just recuse themselves.
“It would have been 7-0 and your friend would have gotten his contract anyway,” she said.
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.