5/3/2010 Update:

Report: Bhalla violates ELEC law

plus more Pay-to-Play contract revelations

“A councilman representing a city at the forefront of pay-to-play reform has apparently flouted the state pay-to-play law.” – Ron Zeitlinger, Deputy Managing Editor, The Jersey Journal

That’s the opening line of an article to be published in Tuesday’s newspaper revealing more damning information about Ravinder S. Bhalla’s public contracts. The JJ is reporting Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s Councilman-at-Large failed to file the Business Entity Annual Statement required under law by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). This mandatory form requires private vendors who do business with government bodies and agencies to report all contracts they’ve been awarded, as well as include all contributions to candidates, political parties, and political action committees.

Bhalla fails to file required ELEC forms for three years

The paper contacted Bhalla when they learned he hadn’t filed the BE form, which is designed to make sure public contractors are following state and local Pay-to-Play guidelines. Bhalla’s reaction went from denial, to surprise, to a mad rush to cover his tracks.

On Friday afternoon, Bhalla, who has or had contracts with Union City, Newark, Hoboken and Dumont said in a telephone interview that he did not have to file the form. In a follow-up interview said he was totally unaware of the form.”This is the first I’m hearing of this,” Bhalla said Friday. “I will review this and if it’s true then I will comply.” By Saturday evening, Bhalla’s firm, Bhalla and Cho, had filed the reports for 2007, 2008 and 2009. According to ELEC, any business that fails to file the form is subject to fines that may be based on the amount the business failed to report. – JJ

Bhalla Pays-to-Play in Union City, as well!

Remember how the Citizens Campaign reported Bhalla was given $120,000 in no-bid contracts after making a $2500 contribution to a PAC connected to Newark Mayor Cory Booker? Similar “coincidences” were found in Union City, according to the paper:

According to his freshly filed reports, Bhalla’s law firm donated $1,350 on March 19, 2008, and another $1,000 on June 11, 2008, to Union City First, the political action committee that supports Mayor Brian Stack. On July 1, 2008 his law firm was awarded a $127,000 contract from Union City. – JJ

Former Mayor Roberts gave Bhalla Hoboken contract too

How deeply is Ravinder S. Bhalla caught in New Jersey’s Pay-to-Play culture? His small firm earned $255,000 in municipal contracts last year and $323,000 in 2008. Former Hoboken Mayor David Roberts awarded Bhalla a contract to be counsel to the Rent Leveling Board. How is Bhalla defending himself?

“I truly did not know that it was my responsibility,” said Bhalla, “I would be curious to know how many attorneys, how many people are aware of it.” A quick check of some firms and attorneys known to have municipal contracts showed that they had all filed their state BE forms. – JJ

Claiming ignorance of the law is no defense, Mr. Bhalla. Didn’t they teach you that at Tulane?

More shoes are expected to drop on this story this week.

See earlier updates after the jump, including the report that started it all!

4/30/2010 Update:

More developments in the case of Hoboken Councilman Ravi Bhalla’s efforts to circumvent the City of Newark’s Pay-to-Play laws.

Bhalla contradicts Booker, digs himself deeper

As an attorney seeking legal contracts with the City of Newark, Ravinder S. Bhalla is prohibited by Executive Order from contributing more than $300 “to any Essex County party committees, or to any political action committee which regularly engages in or is formed for the purpose of engaging in the support of candidates or political parties in municipal elections in the City of Newark.” Bhalla contributed $2500 to the Empower Newark PAC before he received $120,000 in legal contracts from Newark. When the Star Ledger called Mayor Cory Booker for comment, they reported:

Booker has denied any control over Empower Newark. He said he has no legal authority to curb political action committees but declined to comment further. Officials from Empower Newark did not return numerous calls for comment. – Star-Ledger

Booker’s ties to Empower Newark are well established despite his comment. So much so that Bhalla himself rejected Booker’s claim in today’s daily paper from Jersey City:

Bhalla… responded that Booker is doing a great job in Newark and he will continue to support him within the limits of the law. It’s important for the government to have energetic and smart public servants, he added. “If there are pieces of the law that need to be strengthened, that’s up to Newark,” Bhalla said. — JJ

Bhalla went even further on another website, saying of Booker: “He’s a young, energetic, smart public servant and that is the type of person I want to support. My background with Booker is that I am genuinely inspired by his work in Newark.”

So, we have Cory Booker denying ties to Empower Newark, and Ravi Bhalla defending his right to give $2500 to Empower Newark specifically because he supports Booker. Bhalla’s support of Booker has been very lucrative, thanks to $120,000 in contracts awarded to the Hoboken Councilman by Booker’s adminstration.

POG President amends and corrects the record

Did you know the Hoboken City Council voted to publicly release a memo from Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s Corporation Counsel on Ravi Bhalla’s vote to give his officemate Paul Condon a public contract? Me either. Know why? Because it wasn’t done in public. It was discussed exclusively in Executive Session at the April 21st meeting. The memo was never actually released to the public, and can only be obtained via an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request at the City Clerk’s office.

For that reason People for Open Government President Alice Crozier can be forgiven for not knowing that either. She dropped me a note today correcting the record. Corporation Counsel Michael Kates should have immediately given the memo to Crozier and former POG President Eric Kurta, who met with Kates soon after the original Condon Pay-to-Play story was broken by Hoboken411. Instead, Kates is directing POG to obtain it by OPRA request. Immediately after Crozier was informed of this she contacted the media to correct the record.

4/29/2010 Update:

Even the well-respected “transparency police” organization People for Open Government are disappointed with Ravi Bhalla’s conduct. Here’s what POG President Alice Crozier has to say:

We expect action, not apologies

“The recent story about Hoboken Councilman-at-Large Ravinder Bhalla’s contribution to the PAC Empower Newark, allegedly in exchange for a lucrative city contract there, is extremely distressing. Bhalla, like his colleagues on the Hoboken City Council Carol Marsh and David Mello, ran only last fall on campaign promises of reform and clean government. All three are allies of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who also campaigned on a reform platform. Since 2004, Hoboken has adopted three ordinances that restrict pay-to-play practices. Bhalla’s apparent evasion of Newark’s pay-to-play laws by making his contribution to a PAC rather than to a candidate demonstrates exactly the cynical sort of political dealing that Hoboken is committed to ban from its public life.

Unfortunately, Bhalla was also involved in an alleged conflict of interest issue in Hoboken only two months ago, when he voted on the City Council to award a legal contract with the City of Hoboken to Paul Condon, with whom he shares an office and a secretary. At that time POG requested clarification by the City’s Corporation Counsel of the grounds for his advice to Bhalla that there was no conflict. Mr. Kates submitted his rationale to the Council several weeks ago but they have not made it public.

Hoboken People for Open Government (POG) expects more than a public apology from Mayor Zimmer and Councilman Bhalla; we expect action.”
Alice Crozier
President, People for Open Government

4/28/2010:

Star Ledger: Bhalla’s Newark contracts under fire

Hoboken Councilman-at-large Ravi Bhalla’s $120,000 no-bid legal contracts with the City of Newark have caught the attention of state anti Pay-to-Play activists.

According to the Star Ledger, Bhalla was among the public contractors who circumvented Newark’s anti Pay-to-Play law by making contributions to a Political Action Committee that funds allies of Newark Mayor Cory Booker. The same Booker whose administration gave a contract to Bhalla.

Did a $2500 contribution net a $60,000 contract?

The Ledger reports Bhalla made a $2500 contribution to the “Empower Newark PAC” on July 1, 2008. The very next day, Bhalla’s small law firm was awarded a $60,000 contract from the City of Newark. This contract was amended to add an additional $60,000 on March 4, 2009, just as Bhalla was mounting his campaign for Hoboken City Council.

Bhalla’s Pay-to-Play move is technically not a violation of law, but Citizens Campaign founder Harry Pozycki calls it a violation of the “spirit” of Newark’s Pay-to-Play law. Pozycki should know. His group helped draft it. He also had a hand in helping Hoboken’s People For Open Government (POG) get Pay-to-Play laws on the ballot here. Hoboken activist John Branciforte is Pozycki’s Hudson County coordinator.

What is “Pay-to-Play?”

Pay-to-play is the practice of donating to political candidates in exchange for lucrative government contracts. The Ledger says in 2008, Empower Newark accepted $35,200 from 10 city vendors. Within a year, five of the firms (including Bhalla’s) were awarded $5 million in new no-bid contracts and five got $8.2 million in amended contracts. Long before most Hobokenites had ever heard of Ravi Bhalla he was seeking public law contracts.

Former Mayor David Roberts’ administration awarded Bhalla a contract to provide legal services to Hoboken’s Rent Control Board.

Many New Jersey lawyers – including former Hoboken State Senator Bernie Kenny – have used their status in public office to drive business to their law firms. The Pay-to-Play laws are designed to curtail the self-enrichment of those who seek elected office.

Bhalla’s ties to Booker and Newark politics

Though Bhalla was a relative unknown in Hoboken a year ago, he was well known to Cory Booker’s political machine in Newark. Though he was an active Booker booster who was rewarded with a public contract, Bhalla sold himself to Hoboken as a “clean slate” candidate with no “ties to the politics of the past.” When Peter Cammarano was inaugurated last July, Booker appeared at the podium to heap praise on Cammarano and Bhalla alike, speaking in lush terms of his relationship with the first elected Sikh councilman. In addition to Booker and Roberts, Bhalla also held a public contract in Union City under Mayor Brian Stack.

Bhalla’s ethics once again in question

“Good government leadership requires respect for appearances as well as the letter of the law,” according to Pozycki, who is calling on Mayor Booker to close the Ravi Bhalla PAC loophole. It’s not the first time Bhalla’s relationships have been called into question. This story follow’s Bhalla’s vote to give a no-bid contract to the attorney he shares a lease and secretary with.

Bhalla continues to claim his innocence in the Paul Condon case, but the court of public opinion long since ruled the councilman should have declared his obvious conflict and recused himself from the council vote.

Now, a new embarrassment for Bhalla, called out by a statewide Good Government advocate for circumventing Newark’s Pay-to-Play restrictions.