Come On In, Boys! There's Plenty for Everyone!

The outgoing Eric Jackson Administration and lame-duck City Council are planning on leaving a nice parting gift to the new Mayor and City Council .And they are creating Christmas in May for two dozen of New Jersey’s leading – and politically connected – law firms.

In the published Docket for Thursday’s City Council meeting are no fewer than 25 separate Resolutions that – if all are approved – will provide for contracts with 20 different law firms (some of the lucky firms are looking to get two different contracts) for various legal services to the City in the amount of – wait for it – $1,490,000.

You read that right. Nearly $1.5 Million Dollars in new contracts for work that will be mostly be done well after July 1, the expiration date for this current crowd in City Hall.

Here’s a spreadsheet showing a summary of the Resolutions (which can be read on pages 3-6 of the Docket), the firms involved, the proposed amounts of the contracts, and what they are for. It’s quite the list. Here’s a snapshot:

trenton legal2

Of this amount, $1,350,000 is for new contracts, with $140K added on to several existing city contracts. Considering the significant amount of the amendments, I would say the odds are good that the $1.350 Million worth of new deals will not be the final amounts.

This is a HUGE amount for a city like Trenton to be paying for outside legal services. Let’s try putting this into some context. Every city and town in New Jersey prepares their budgets using the same Chart of Accounts, making it easy to see how much each town budgets for the same items because they all have the same account numbers.

In the Adopted Budget for the current fiscal year ending June 30, Trenton budgets  (in Account #20-155-2, for the nerdy among you) $1,464,800 for all Legal Costs other than Salaries and Wages for the in-house Law Department. This, for Trenton, isn’t anything really new. The budget for this line in FY 2014, the year before the Jackson Administration, was $1,302,000. The number for 2010, the last year of Doug Palmer’s Administration, was much lower however, $760,000.

So, we can see that the City’s outside legal bills, while large under Mr. Palmer, really exploded under Tony Mack. And this current Council.

Back to the present. Since, as mentioned above, most of these outside legal services are likely to be actually used during the new Council Mayoral term, the Jackson Administration is either spending all of next year’s Legal budget right now; OR next year’s Budget for Legal will be hugely higher than this year’s.

Either way, whoever the new Mayor and Council will be, they should remember to say “Thank You!” for dumping this on them before they have a chance to settle in to their new offices.

Trenton’s outside Legal costs dwarf those of other New Jersey communities. Next door Hamilton, comparable in population to Trenton, has budgeted in their 2018 Introduced Budget only $107, 050 for their current budget year, which started January 1.

Up Route 1 North, New Brunswick, a city similar to Trenton but with a slightly smaller population of about 57,000 people estimates $371.001.52 for their outside Legal expenses in account #20-155-2. I like the “52 cents” in that budget line; it strikes me as a kind of quaint confidence in their ability to estimate the expenses to the penny. Trenton estimates to the nearest hundred dollars, which I think is also kind of quaint.

From my limited tour of NJ Municipal budgets, I only found Newark with a higher Adopted Budget line, for 2017 (the latest year on the website)- 20-155-2 $2,526,000 This city budgeted $2,526,000 for its Outside Legal, far more than Trenton. However, Newark is the state’s most populous city, with a population more than three times that of Trenton, at about 282,000. That city’s Legal Budget per person (a rough guide, but one that can be calculated apples to apples) comes to around $8.95. For Trenton’s approximate 84,000 residents, that amount is$17.44, almost double per person.

How is it that Trenton spends so much more on legal services than places like Hamilton and New Brunswick, and nearly twice as much per person as the State’s largest city, Newark?

Damned if I know! This has been a long-running problem in Trenton. Every couple of elections, a candidate or two will promise to cut back on the use of outside lawyers, but they never seem to get to do it. During this election, I don’t think I have heard or read of any candidate talking about that. If I am wrong, please correct me!

Are people in and around Trenton more likely to sue this town than others? I don’t know if that’s the case.

Are Trenton’s legal problems inherently that much more complicated than other towns? I kind of doubt it.

So, why does Trenton spend so much money on lawyers?  Part of the answer might be found in looking at who gets these contracts from this City.

Long-time readers of this space will well remember the problems the last two mayoral Administrations had with some of the law firms it hired – or just tried to hire. Who could ever forget Tony Mack’s efforts to bring in the Cooper Levenson firm from Atlantic City, which ended when news broke of an illegal donation made to Mack’s campaign using a local Political Action Committee as the middleman.

Eric Jackson’s young Administration experienced similar complications with its 2015 attempt to award a contract to the firm of DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick and Cole (remember that firm!). This firm hired the City’s Law Director of the time, David Minchello, as a partner, and he then tried to get his new firm some City business. In the words of a news story of the time, “The news raised concerns about a perceived conflict of interest because the Teaneck firm was awarded an $80,000 contract with the city to provide legal services regarding labor and employment issues at Minchello’s recommendation.”

As  the result of these developments, DeCotiis ended up without a contract, and Minchello left his City job.

This is just a little background on how much Trenton spends on law firms around the state. Now let’s take a brief look at the firms to whom all this contract work goes under this Administration.

One theme throughout this list is the frequent and high-profile connections among several partners of these firms with state and federal Democratic Party players and personalities. Of course, politicians and lawyers often tend to overlap the private and public spheres, all across the country. It just seems sometimes that in New Jersey, the frequent overlap and deep-seated connections have been raised to an art form. Let’s look at a few of the firms who are slated to receive contracts from the City.

One of the name partners at Inglesino, Webster, Wyciskala & Taylor (up for one $50,000 deals), Elnardo Webster, is described on that firm’s website as “active in Democratic politics, most notably serving as Treasurer and Finance Chairman to Senator Cory Booker’s mayoral campaigns.”

If you were thinking that the “Florio” in Florio Perucci Steinhardt & Capelli ($30,000) is THAT Florio, you are correct! James J. Florio, himself, Democratic 49th Governor of this fair state. Another name partner, Lou Capelli, is a Democratic Camden County Freeholder. In a demonstration of political “diversity,” another name partner, Douglas Steinhardt, has been Chair of the Warren County Republican Committee, since 2004, and Chair of the New Jersey State Republican Committee since last fall.  According to the firm’s website, Michael Perucci does not seem to have been involved in state politics for either party, as a practitioner, although he has been a frequent and generous contributor – mostly to Democratic candidates, but some Republicans as well – having donated at least  $27,000 and as much as $47,000 per year for the last half-dozen years to candidates in NJ, Pennsylvania and New York, mostly.

Edward Florio, of the firm of Florio & Kenny ($50,000), doesn’t seem to be related to the former Governor, from what I was able to find out, but he does seem to be another Democratic heavy-hitter. According to his page of the firm’s website, “He has served as coordinating attorney for the John Kerry for President Campaign, the Jon Corzine for Governor Campaign and the Campaign of Robert Menendez for United States Senate. Mr. Florio also was coordinating attorney for the successful campaign for Barack Obama for president of the United States.”

I think you get the idea. I’ll just mention one last law firm for now. Rainone Coughlin Minchello ($175,000) is a relatively new partnership, having formed only at the beginning of 2017. But what they lack in history as a firm, they more than make up with the history and experience of their name partners.

Louis Rainone is described on his webpage as  “one of the most well know and accomplished municipal attorneys in New Jersey. He has served as counsel for many of the state’s largest municipalities, including: Newark, Edison, Trenton, Franklin, Marlboro, Perth Amboy, Clifton, Brick, Piscataway Rahway, Sayreville, Bound Brook and Green Brook… He served as Legislative Assistant to the Chairman of the New Jersey General Assembly Committee on Taxation and in the same capacity to the Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee… Mr. Rainone practiced law for 17 years in Middlesex County as the Partner of former Assembly Speaker Alan J. Karcher.” And, one more credential: “Prior to forming the firm Mr. Rainone was the Co Chairman of the Municipal Law Section at DeCotiis FitzPatrick and Cole.” [Emphasis mine – KM]

Hey, you remember them. From that ruckus described above, with then-City Attorney David Minchello!

Well, you won’t be surprised (spoiler alert! He is a name partner in the firm) that David Minchello is also at the Rainone firm, and seems to have finally landed a big contract with the City of Trenton, his old employer, just before his friend Eric Jackson leaves office.

It’s important to mention that the current Speaker of the NJ Assembly, Craig Coughlin-D, is the other name partner. That makes two Speakers who Louis Rainone has partnered with in his career.

This new law firm has been very successful in drumming up business with local NJ communities during its first couple of years. According to, the firm has received one $300,000 from Somerset County’s Franklin Township (nearly half its annual budget for outside lawyers) , and one for $250,000 from Marlboro in Monmouth County (almost its entire outside Legal budget) .

Trenton apparently likes to spread the wealth around, with a large number of moderately-priced contracts awarded to several law firms, as in this week’s proposed Resolutions, which seek to hire twenty different law firms. It’s a very different approach, having the City of Trenton figuratively announcing to the state’s Legal Community, including all those politically “connected” firms with which the City might hope to earn some good will, “Come On In, Boys! There’s plenty for Everyone!”

Regarding this week’s proposed Resolutions, it’s very possible that the City does face a number of new situations that may require the kind of specialized legal services offered by many of these firms.

But, 25 of them all at once?? That Resolutions need to be urgently passed and contracts urgently signed before the new Mayor and Council have a chance to look at them?

Something here does not seem right. I think this situation needs attention, and I think this process needs slow the heck down. To be clear, there’s nothing with these proposals that seem on the face of them to be illegal or otherwise improper.

But there are just so many Resolutions! So many law firms! So much money!

Last week, we seem to have elected three new At Large Council members. They might like to attend Thursday’s session to persuade this lame-duck Council to hold off on all of these and give them a chance to review them in July.

There are three Current Council members running for re-election who might want to think if they want to be noted on the record as voting in favor such a big payout to so many “connected” law firms so soon before the runoffs.

And there are two mayoral candidates who may also want to attend Thursday’s session for a quick education on Trenton’s many legal woes.

All the current and potential new officeholders have a personal stake in Thursday’s session. since they – and not the current Administration! – who will have to live and face the consequences of these huge lame-duck proposals on deck this week. Time for them to step up and slow this down.

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