Although the Hoboken City Council pushed their vote on a new contract with Suez Water, council colleagues/mayoral hopefuls Mike DeFusco and Ravi Bhalla sparred over whether or not the latter had a conflict of interest.
By Marc Bussanich and John Heinis
“Councilman Bhalla is also a partner [at Florio, Perrucci, Steinhardt & Fader], I question whether this is a conflict of interest,” DeFusco said at last night’s council meeting.
According to the New Jersey Law Journal, the aforementioned law firm received at least $130,000 in lobby fees from Suez.
However, Bhalla countered by stating he was in high school when the last Suez contract was negotiated with Hoboken and said DeFusco was playing politics by bringing up such an issue during public session.
“I’m happy to recuse myself immediately, pending a legal opinion. But let’s stop with the political nonsense,” Bhalla responded.
“Councilman, it’s not political nonsense,” retorted DeFusco.
City Corporation Counsel Brian Aloia indicated that Bhalla had every right to abstain before the presentation began, but said he could not give a legal opinion since he had not had time to refer all the circumstances at hand.
DeFusco was more than happy to provide more information for Aloia on the spot.
“Corporation counsel, for your view, I’d just like to provide you with a printout from Florio Perrucci Steinhardt Fader’s website – which, although Councilman Bhalla says was a partnership while he was in high school, as he so proudly proclaims that their client is Suez Water Incorporated,” stated DeFusco, who represents the 1st Ward.
“And I’ll put this on the record: if Councilman Bhalla has been party to any of the negotiations with them, I believe he needs to recuse himself. The perception of an impropriety, in itself, is an issue to me.”
Bhalla then expressed shock that the matter continued to be an open discussion on the dais.
“I’m astounded … such garbage. Councilman … we’re in the middle of August and rather than being a gentleman, as I mistakenly expected you were, you could’ve picked up the phone and we could’ve had a conversation and we could’ve worked this out rather than set me up in the public, in front of the cameras.”
Speaking with Hudson County View after the meeting, Bhalla again reiterated that he thought the whole situation played out like “a political setup.”
“Well that was obviously a political setup. We are sort of in silly season. The professional way to have done it would be to raise the issue privately with the presence of corporation counsel, rather than publicly embarrass a colleague,” expressed Bhalla.
“I think it really reflects more on them and their intentions and the misuse of the government dais to advance their political ends.”
The council was expected to vote on a multi-million dollar contract with Suez that would extend their agreement with the city through 2034, however, the governing body opted to pull the measure when various questions arose throughout a 40-minute presentation on the subject.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer has previously stated that the new contract would come with $40 million in benefits to the city and Suez would also forgive them for $10 million they are owed.
Although Bhalla was adamant he had no part in the Suez negotiations with the city, DeFusco continued to chip away at his political adversary.
“Ravi Bhalla’s failure to disclose that Suez is a client of his law firm at this moment when the City Council must decide on a decades-long agreement worth tens of millions of taxpayer dollars is the antithesis of transparent government,” DeFusco said in a statement.
“Last night Councilman Bhalla was asked directly whether or not his firm still represents Suez and he said no, but the facts say otherwise. We need to know the full extent of Ravi Bhalla’s business relationship with Suez and we also must determine whether or not he was involved in the city’s negotiations given this apparent conflict of interest.”
The Hoboken mayoral race isn’t until November 7th, so the subsequent fall meetings of the city council are all but guaranteed to provide similar fireworks.