Condon Choice Controversy Update
FLASH: Ethics Complaint filed against Ravi Bhalla
The ethical firestorm surrounding Councilman Ravinder S. Bhalla may be headed for a state investigation.
Peter “Perry” Belfiore has filed a complaint against Bhalla with the Division of Local Government Services. It outlines the circumstances surrounding Bhalla’s vote to award his office-mate Paul Condon a no-bid city contract.
Belfiore: Bhalla broke Local Government Ethics Law
The specific provisions of the Local Government Ethics Law Belfiore believes Bhalla violated include:
40A:9-22.5a, which says that “no local government officer or employee or member of his immediate family shall have an interest in a business organization or engage in any business, transaction, or professional activity, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest,”
40A:9-22.5c, which says that “no local government officer or employee shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for himself or others,”
40A:9-22.5d, which says that “no local government officer or employee shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he, a member of his immediate family, or a business organization in which he has an interest, has a direct or indirect financial or personal involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment,” and possibly several others.
Is Bhalla “understating” his business ties?
Belfiore says, “I strongly suspect that Mr. Bhalla is significantly understating his business ties to Mr. Condon, with respect to such typical office costs as office furniture and equipment, utility and phone bills, and many more. It would also be common for people in their situation to refer business to each other. Additionally, if they share a computer, fax or filing system, I believe under attorney ethics rules that they may be treated as if they were actual law partners. Without a full investigation, it is impossible to tell the true depths of their business relationship.” The complaint also references City Attorney Michael Kates’ effort to exonerate Bhalla. Kates serves at the will of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who ran with Bhalla.
Ethics complaint follows Pay-to-Play controversy
Bhalla has lucrative public contracts, but failed to file the proper Business Entitity disclosure forms with the state ELEC commission for three years. As a public contractor and attorney, Belfiore says this means, “conflict of interest standards should not be alien to him.” Belfiore is a former member of the Hoboken Board of Education who lost a City Council runoff election in 2007.
Hoboken411 broke this story back in February. See the original after the jump, as well as all the updates that followed.
Bhalla under fire, Cunningham still mum
If you caught the front page of the Hoboken Reporter this weekend, you saw a familiar story – with some new twists.
A picture of Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla sits under the headline “Conflicts and Campaign Money.” The March 7th Reporter (which was incorrectly stated as the “March 3rd” edition) followed up on the story broken here first on February 26th. As usual, the weekly fish wrap gave Hoboken411 no credit, but I’m used to that. To show we’re bigger than their petty jealousy of 411’s far larger Hoboken readership, we’ll give them credit for holding Bhalla’s feet to the fire and forcing him to answer questions that only strengthened the case against him.
The story of council conflicts that won’t go away
Bhalla made it clear he wouldn’t respond to Hoboken411, hoping the story would just go away. Wrong again Councilman. There’s too much to the Condon Conflicts to ignore. You already know Bhalla approved a $29,000 no-bid city contract for friend and officemate Paul Condon without even so much of as a public mention of his relationship. When called on it, Bhalla’s initial public comments might have left some with the impression he has no financial entanglements whatsoever with Condon. It turns out that’s not true. Under repeated questioning, Bhalla was forced to admit the following to reporter Tim Carroll:
- Despite an internet damage control campaign to the contrary, Bhalla and Condon signed a JOINT, three-year lease for the suite they share. Bhalla admitted if one were to default on the lease, the other would have to pay.
- Bhalla and Condon also share an employee in the form of a receptionist who handles business for both attorneys.
- Bhalla and Condon also share office equipment and supplies, which cost money.
Digging the hole deeper and deeper
Bhalla claims that since technically his and Condon’s law firms are separate entities, “There was no conflict, and in my sound judgment there was no appearance of a conflict.”
Same office. Same lease. Same receptionist. Same office equipment and supplies. Long-standing personal and professional relationship. No conflict in voting to give a no-bid contract? That doesn’t sound like “Change that’s Working” Councilman.
That sounds like same-old, same-old.
Official Condon review underway
Much has happened since Hoboken411 broke the news Friday night of the City Council conflicts and apparent Pay-to-Play violation in the award of a no-bid contract to attorney Paul Condon.
The authors of Hoboken’s Pay-to-Play ordinance at People for Open Government have opened an investigation, one Councilwoman expressed outrage at the report, and Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s new Corporation Counsel is looking into the charges. Let’s get you caught up…
Upon further review, Condon gave $1250 to Cunningham
Our initial report indicated Paul Condon’s wife Renee Condon gave Peter Cunningham a $750 contribution for his 2007 campaign for 5th ward Council. It turns out a second, $500 contribution was made for Cunningham’s runoff election. The $1250 given by a family member of an eventual City professional services contractor is $950 more than the $300 limit allowed in Hoboken’s Pay-to-Play contracting reform ordinance. Cunningham took his seat on the council on July 1, 2007.
Paul Condon was initially hired by Mayor David Roberts in February 2008 to prosecute the SWAT-related charges against Police Lieutenant Angelo Andriani. As part of POG’s investigation about the revelations in my report, former POG President Eric Kurta went to City Hall to investigate. Among his initial findings:
“Mr. Condon did enter into an agreement to provide legal services to the city for a one-year period beginning February 28, 2008. The contributions made by Mr. Condon’s spouse, Renee Condon, were dated 3/30/07 ($750) and 5/31/07 ($500) and are within the one-year period prior to entering into an agreement, wherein contributions are limited to $300 or less.
Though the amount of the contract was for less than that of the state’s bidding threshold, it was nonetheless defined as a professional services agreement and thereby bound to comply with the P2P ordinance. This has been brought to the attention of Mr. Kates, Hoboken Corporation Counsel who will report his conclusions to the Mayor and City Council sooner rather than later, I would imagine.”– Eric Kurta
This means under the Pay-to-Play law, Renee Condon’s $1250 donation to Cunningham legally precluded Paul Condon from accepting the no-bid professional services contract within one calendar year. Condon has been prosecuting the long, drawn out SWAT case against Andriani for over two years, which is believed to be the longest disciplinary hearing in Hoboken history.
2010 case separate from 2008 charges
It shouldn’t be missed that City Attorney Kates stressed the new, no-bid $29,000 contract awarded to Condon on the recommendation of Mayor Zimmer is legally a new charge against Andriani which is not directly connected to the SWAT charges. Kates stressed the two cases are separate, and will use separate hearing judges. Condon’s familiarity with the SWAT case has no bearing on whether he should prosecute the Florida Airport badge-waving allegations. Kates was clear on this point, and it’s all on the meeting video.
The question now is when, not “if” P2P law was violated
City Council members are elected for four years, but a convenient quirk in POG’s law only limits contributions to from city contractors for one year after the contribution is made.
The one-year prohibition is buried in the law, and was admittedly missed in our original story, which indicated the Pay-to-Play law would ban a 2010 contract following a 2007 contribution. In fact it does not. Consider that accidental omission corrected and regretted – and realistically an enormous loophole in the ordinance.
However, the law says if a vendor violates the Pay-to-Play law they are banned from contracting with Hoboken for four years. Since the 2007 contribution made the 2008 contract illegal under the Pay-to-Play law, this puts the status of both of Condon’s contracts in question.
Cunningham and Bhalla’s personal and business ties to Condon are outlined in the original Hoboken411 exclusive that broke this story wide open below…
(411 Note: Some of the information below has been revised and updated above.)
Council conflicts and Pay-to-Play violation uncovered
Last week the Hoboken City Council awarded a $29,000 no-bid contract to Hoboken attorney Paul Condon. City council watchers say two members of Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s majority should have abstained from the vote due to their conflicts of interest. Instead they voted with the rest of the council without a peep. A responsible press reports on the conflicts of politicians who hold elective office, especially those who campaigned against the crony/pay-to-play culture that has existed for so long.
Hoboken411 presents the facts:
Condon’s connections to Bhalla and Cunningham
Paul Condon’s law office is located in Suite 4A at 33-41 River Street. Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla’s law office is also located in Suite 4A at 33-41 River Street. Condon and Bhalla share an office, putting them in a business relationship that should have been disclosed to the public before Bhalla voted in favor of awarding the no-bid Special Legal Counsel contract to Condon. Bhalla never mentioned his relationship with Condon during the discussion of the resolution, and voted yes when he should have abstained.
Cunningham’s conflicts: business and campaign cash
Fifth Ward Councilman Peter Cunningham’s wife Jen works at Hudson Place Realty. Paul Condon’s wife Renee works at Hudson Place Realty. Jen Cunningham and Renee Condon have on occasion jointly offered and marketed Real Estate for sale, creating a business relationship that goes beyond simply working for the same agency. In addition, Renee Condon made a $750 campaign contribution to Peter Cunningham’s election fund in 2007. This contribution is in violation of the contractor Pay-to-Play ordinance advanced by People for Open Government.
What does POG’s ordinance say about this kind of contribution?
You can read the whole ordinance here. It says the law bans contributions to Hoboken candidates from business entities (including individuals, family members, firms of all types and affiliates) prior to receiving professional services contracts with the City of Hoboken. That limit is $300 per year to a candidate like Peter Cunningham, who accepted $750 from Renee Condon, wife of Paul Condon, who was just awarded a no-bid public contract by the Zimmer Administration.
Cunningham’s action also opened the city up to a lawsuit, according to the POG ordinance:
SECTION 7 CITIZENS PRIVATE RIGHT OF ACTION: Notwithstanding any other common right of law, any Hoboken citizen or citizens group shall have the right to sue any or all entities in violation of this ordinance, including the business entity awarded a contract or agreement to provide “professional services” or “extraordinary unspecified services”, the candidate or committee as specified in subsection 1(a) above, and/or the City Hoboken, in order to compel those entities to comply with this ordinance.
Condon’s political activities
Paul Condon is no stranger to Hoboken politics. In 2004 he ran an unsuccessful campaign for Board of Education, and considered a bid – but did not run – for City Council in 2007. Last week he was awarded a no-bid contract to be the Special Legal Counsel handling the matter of suspended police Lieutenant Angelo Andriani’s activities in a Florida airport. Under New Jersey law a “professional services contract” of $29,000 or less does not need to go out for public bidding. The Mayor has the power to recommend an attorney for a council vote. In this case it was Condon, whose relationships with Bhalla and Cunningham go far deeper than they’ve disclosed.Hoboken NJ