Hoboken 1st Ward Michael DeFusco said that two engineering firms vying for work on the Union Dry Dock property contributed money to Mayor Ravi Bhalla that exceeded the amounts allowed under local pay-to-play laws during last night’s council meeting.
DeFusco, Bhalla’s chief political rival, made the accusation while discussing the resolution to award a “professional service contract to T&M Associates to provide engineering services relative to the potential acquisition of the Union Dry Dock property.”
T&M Associates, based in Middletown, made headlines last year in Pennsylvania when one of its former executives was charged in a pay-to-play corruption scheme in which campaign donations and other favors were traded for city contracts in Allentown, according to the online publication The Morning Call.
Hudson County View exclusively reviewed all the work they had performed in 2016, several contracts which were not renewed – though they had performed a significant amount of work on Hoboken’s Washington Street rehabilitation project.
The other engineering firm, Prestige Environmental, according to reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (NJ ELEC), contributed $1,800 to two entities this quarter: $1,200 to the team account and $600 to Bhalla’s individual account.
Defusco said those donations far exceeds the amounts allowed for city vendors to make under the Mile Square City’s strict pay-to-play laws.
“I have a concern with T&M, the engineering firm that was originally in charge of Washington Street – a $12 million project that has since ballooned to $17 million,” he began.
“In 2016 they received $740,000 worth of contracts from the City of Hoboken and later that year, an ex-business development manager pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and he admitted it was to maintain his firm’s competitive edge to receive municipal contracts.”
For that reason, the councilman said he found it hard to believe T&M could be considered an “above-the-board and honest bidder.”
“As I sit here, there’s no reason that T&M is prohibited from getting this award,” Corporation Counsel Brian Aloia responded to DeFusco’s objections.
In a similar line of questioning, DeFusco asked if the firm Prestige Environmental creates a concern in terms of ethics for Aloia.
Aloia reiterated his previous point, telling DeFusco that the firm is pre-qualified, meaning that they are approved to bid on city contracts.
“In reviewing the Mayor’s first quarter ELEC reports, have you noticed that Prestige Environmental donated $600 to Ravi Bhalla and $1,200 to Team Bhalla in excess of the pay-to-play laws, just this quarter?,” DeFusco questioned.
Aloia didn’t respond, prompting DeFusco to exclaim “And this is exactly why this administration is ethically challenged.”
“I do not feel comfortable, at all, voting on this tonight given the major legal conflicts that T&M has and their inability to deliver on a project for the city and the fact they are in violation to our Mayor and certain council people.”
He didn’t mention who those council people were, but according to NJ ELEC, the Team Bhalla documents were signed by Council-at-Large members James Doyle and Emily Jabbour – who successfully ran with Bhalla in November.
Ultimately, the city council decided to table the resolution until there is a remedy.
Council President Ruben Ramos suggested that if the mayor returns the money to both T&M and Prestige, then the council could possibly vote on the resolution, allowing T&M to begin engineering services work on Union Dry Dock.
The current owner of Union Dry Dock is New York Waterway, who wants to build a ferry maintenance facility, while the city wants the property to make the waterfront a contiguous waterfront park.
NY Waterway has to leave their Weehawken facility by June 1st, meaning that time is of the essence if Hoboken wants to provide them an alternative to Union Dry Dock.
In a statement, Bhalla commended the council for pulling the agenda item as the administration investigates the situation, noting that they take the pay-to-play regulations very seriously.
“It was the responsible thing to do while we actively investigate the concern. I’m glad this was brought to our attention, and I hope councilmembers will feel comfortable bringing any future concerns to me directly and as soon as they are discovered so that we can address these potential conflicts as quickly as possible,” he said.
“We take pay-to-play laws very seriously and expect strict compliance from firms who wish to work with Hoboken. While the onus is on the vendor to ensure compliance when responding to RFPs, we have no intentions of using any firms that are in violation of pay-to-play laws.”
The mayor added that despite this misstep, it would not interfere with the city’s timeline to acquire the Union Dry Dock property.
A spokesman for NY Waterway declined to comment.