Ethics violation upheld for Bhalla
But councilman has already appealed recent ruling
by Carlo Davis
Reporter staff writer
Jan 04, 2015 | 6777 views | 7 7 comments | 53 53 recommendations | email to a friend | print
STEPPING UP — Councilman-at-Large Ravinder Bhalla, here being sworn in as council president in 2011, recently saw an ethics charge against him upheld by the state’s Local Finance Board.
STEPPING UP — Councilman-at-Large Ravinder Bhalla, here being sworn in as council president in 2011, recently saw an ethics charge against him upheld by the state’s Local Finance Board.
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Did Councilman Ravinder Bhalla violate a state ethics law when he voted in 2010 to award a city contract to a lawyer with whom he shared an office lease?

In 2013, the New Jersey Local Finance Board ruled that Bhalla did, in fact, violate the law. Then, in September of 2014, an administrative law judge found that Bhalla had committed no wrongdoing. But on Dec. 12, 2014, the board issued a final agency decision upholding its original ruling.

The board has assessed Bhalla a fine of $100, but has waived payment because there is no state precedent for an ethics violation arising as a result of a shared lease.

Bhalla has pledged to fight the ruling in court, calling it “perplexing.”

At the time of his 2010 vote, Bhalla asked the city’s attorney at the time, Michael Kates, whether he should vote on the matter. Kates asked if Bhalla and his office mate had a personal or financial relationship with that would preclude Bhalla from objective assessment. Bhalla said no, and Kates told him he did not have to abstain.

However, a subsequent written opinion by Kates stated that he believed that Bhalla and his office mate had separate leases.

The appearance of a conflict

The issue arose in 2010 when the Hoboken City Council voted unanimously to reappoint Paul Condon as the city’s representative in several police disciplinary issues. At the time, Condon and Bhalla worked out of a law office on Newark Street, where they maintained separate practices but shared a lease with “joint and several liability.”

The crux of the case is whether the financial obligations of Bhalla’s joint lease with Condon would be reasonably expected to impair his judgment.

The state Local Finance Board, which rules on certain municipal issues, said in 2013 that they did. They issued a preliminary Notice of Violation against Bhalla in July of that year.
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“My reputation in the community is paramount to my life as a public servant.”—Ravinder Bhalla
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However, a September 2013 ruling by administrative law judge James Geraghty exonerated Bhalla and called the potential conflict of interest “remote and speculative.”

Geraghty also criticized the person who filed the complaint against Bhalla, Hoboken political activist Perry Belfiore, a former school board and housing board member. Geraghty called Belfiore a “local gadfly” and “relentless political antagonist.”

But the board’s Dec. 12 Final Agency Decision said the vote was a conflict no matter who brought it to light.

Last week, Bhalla questioned the Local Finance Board’s willingness to rule “in favor of itself” over the “independent decision” of a judge, calling the decision “truly ironic.”

“My reputation in the community is paramount to my life as a public servant,” he said in a statement, “and I look forward to working toward once again clearing my name so I can continue to advance Hoboken instead of being dragged into a political fight which wastes taxpayer money.”

New decision

The Dec. 12 decision was signed by Local Finance Board Chair Thomas Neff. “The terms of the lease definitively bound [Bhalla] into an indirect pecuniary and personal interest in the solvency of Condon’s legal practice,” wrote Neff, “in that petitioner would be liable for the full cost of…the joint lease were the financial circumstances of Condon’s practice diminished to such an extent that he would be unable to pay his share of the rent.”

This same argument was scoffed at by Judge Geraghty is his ruling. Geraghty said the idea that not granting Condon an extension to his city contract would cause him to default on his rent payments was “fanciful,” “illogical,” and “unsupported by any credible evidence.”

But Neff emphasized that the mere appearance of a conflict was enough to create a violation of state ethics law.

Attacking the complainer

The Local Finance Board also criticized Judge Geraghty for focusing on the person who made the complaint, Belfiore, noting that an ethics violation is an ethics violation regardless of the motives of the person bringing it to light. In its final decision, the Local Finance Board struck all discussion of Belfiore’s intentions.

“The board does not consider a complainant’s motivation in filing a complaint when reviewing allegations of violations of the Ethics law,” it wrote.

Belfiore, too, has said his complaint against Bhalla was factual, regardless of any political context.

Belfiore is a sometime critic of the administration of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, with whom Bhalla is allied.

Next steps

Bhalla recently retained a spokesman, Ray Smith, a former staff writer at The Hoboken Reporter. Some speculate that Bhalla will run for state Assembly in the Democratic primary this June, as he did in 2013.

Smith said that Bhalla has already filed an appeal in the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey.

One key point Bhalla hopes to raise is whether the Local Finance Board followed its own rules in reaching a final decision. Under state law, the board had 45 days to respond or Geraghty’s decision would become final.

According to the Local Finance Board decision, the Office of Administrative Law issued an extension giving the board until Dec. 18 to render a ruling.

But Smith says the board never discussed Bhalla’s case at either its November or December regular meeting. He questioned whether the board had ever discussed or voted on Chairman Neff’s Dec. 12 decision.

Bhalla will also question whether “Chairman Neff and/or the Local Finance Board has the legal authority to reject a decision by Judge Geraghty.”

However, Geraghty’s own opinion states his “recommended decision may be adopted, modified, or rejected by the Local Finance Board…which by law is authorized to make a final decision in this matter.”

Hoboken’s Corporation Counsel Mellissa Longo will continue to represent Bhalla in his appeal, as she did in oral arguments before the Office of Administrative Law this past July.

Smith said the city’s representation of Bhalla would incur “zero additional taxpayer expense,” because the matter is being handled in house by the city’s Law Department rather than through an outside counsel.

According to Smith, the city has “a legal duty to defend Councilman Bhalla because he was acting in his official capacity.” Additionally, said Smith, the city is defending its former Corporation Counsel Michael Kates, upon whose legal advice Bhalla relied.

Other issues

Bhalla has been accused of other ethics issues during his tenure on the council. Among them, in 2010, NJ.com reported that Bhalla’s then-law firm had not submitted three years’ worth of required forms to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. When asked about the forms by reporters, Bhalla initially said he wasn’t required to submit them. Then he said he had no knowledge of the form. After that, he filed the requisite documents the following day and apologized.

His law firm also has contributed money to groups associated with New Jersey politicians, then received contracts from those politicians. In July 2008, Bhalla’s firm won a $54,400 contract from the city of Newark one month after it made a $2,500 contribution to a political action committee (PAC) affiliated with Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

In 2007, Bhalla’s firm was awarded a $240,000 contract by Union City. The next year, it gave $2,350 in donations to a PAC in support of Union City Mayor Brian Stack. Bhalla’s firm subsequently received another $127,000 contract from Union City.

Bhalla responded in the past to those stories by maintaining that none of the contributions were unethical or violated state pay-to-play laws.

In September, Bhalla said, “Ever since I got elected, there have been certain individuals who have been trying to destroy my reputation.”

Carlo Davis may be reached at cdavis@hudsonreporter.com.

Comments
(7)
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HobMcDonald
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January 08, 2015
Why was this story buried on Page 3?

When he was exonerated you did a big cover story. clear bias.

He and beth mason should stop calling themselves reformers. This weeks news about both of them shows why.
PAX07030
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January 07, 2015
I can't wait to see the front page headlines in the Hoboken Reporter next week reporting the tens of thousands in fines Councilwoman Beth Mason and her campaign have had to pay this week for their massive campaign funding violations.

byebyebethmason
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January 04, 2015
not sure who this ASSilem character is who posts his/her political laced comments on this website but clearly he or she is probably not a resident of hoboken...because if he or she was, they would realize what an asset councilman Bhalla is to the community at large. I know of myself and others who have reached out to him in the past to resolve issues that were affecting the residents of hoboken and he responded timely and was effective in getting issues resolved, he clearly cares about hoboken and the people of hoboken. ASSilem, you should be ashamed of yourself, we need more people on the city council like mr. bhalla
PAX07030
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January 07, 2015
I am sure assilem will soon be taking Councilwoman Mason, to task for her highly questionable campaign transactions and lack of ethical behavior.
assilem
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January 04, 2015
A person trying to destroy a reputation would be one who does not present solid basis. The several instances of ethical lapses are clear and as the case states the question/facts is the ethical behavior of the defendant. I am very appreciative to those who point out highly questionable transactions that have political influence.
assilem
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January 04, 2015
Regarding the Administrative law judge, Garaghty, the state Supreme court judges need to look into his lack professionalism/ethics in the case. His professionalism or rather lack thereof is stunning.
assilem
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January 04, 2015
Nothing perplexing from anyone dealing in large public contracts with multiple public and private entities. It would be incumbent upon Councilman Bhalla at the time of the questioning - if he were truly concerned, to seek outside ethical council - disclose every bit of his business dealing and then come back to the Council for further disclosure and discussion. It is not required by law but his claims are that he was and is highly concerned. I don't know how he would make reparations but beginning with apologizing for personal attacks would be a start.