After a thorough investigation that required sifting through hundreds of legal bills between Jan. 1, 2009 and June 30, 2014, Hudson County View has found that the Union City Board of Education spent over $3 million on legal matters: about five times as much as what was spent in West New York, and roughly eight times what was spent in North Bergen.
By John Heinis/Hudson County View
After reviewing various documents obtained through Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests, Hudson County View calculated that Union City was spending an average of $46,407.64 on legal bills per month between January 1, 2009 and June 30, 2014.
The exact total spent on legal fees for the Union City Board of Education during that 66-month time frame is $3,062,904.42.
The only two attorneys being used for the board’s legal work were their legal counsel: Susan Lavelle and Elise DiNardo – who have law offices in North Bergen and Jersey City, respectively, .
The bills were itemized monthly and were billed on a per hour basis, with no specific details attached to the bills (i.e. a job-by-job breakdown of the billing).
During the five-and-a-half year time period which was examined, the Union City Board of Education was in the midst of serious construction/renovations at Colin Powell Elementary School on New York Avenue, the Hudson School on 19th Street and the Gilmore School on 17th Street.
Lavelle noted to Hudson County View that the recent school improvements, as well as the superintendent search last year – on top of the typical day-to-day operations – were contributing factors to the costly bills.
Furthermore, Union City has 16 different schools within their school district, which is an Abbott district.
Abbott, or Schools Development Authority districts, receive considerable funding from the state so their students can receive the same education benefits other more wealthy public school districts enjoy.
West New York
The West New York Board of Education has used a number of prominent law firms since 2009, including Florio, Perucci, Steinhardt & Fader, of Rochelle Park, and Lyndhurst’s Scarinci Hollenbeck.
Additionally, individual attorneys such as North Bergen Public Defender Julio Morejon were billed for legal services. The invoices are broken down per vendor, per school year.
In the 2009-2010 school year, Scarinci Hollenbeck racked up a bill for $157,533.70, while Florio, Perucci, Steinhardt & Fader was paid a relatively modest $19,054.79 for their legal expertise in the 2010-2011 scholastic year.
For the latter year, Scarinci Hollenbeck totaled another sizable bill of $131,525.28.
Between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012, Newark’s Adams, Gutierrez & Lattiboudere, LLC posted a small bill of 1,012.50. Dorf & Dorf, of Rahway, was also tapped for legal services in this instance, charging $43,367.24 for their services.
Morejon, who was briefly the West New York Board of Education attorney in 2011 and 2012, had three invoices total $9,246.
La Corte, Bundy, Varady & Kinsella, of Union, was also compensated for $5,000 worth of legal work during this time frame.
Scarinci Hollenbeck again had considerably more work than other outside vendors, with a legal bill reaching $66,438.51 for the 2011-2012 scholastic year.
Florio, Perucci, Steinhardt & Fader earned an immense check for $111,778.54 for the 2012-2013 school year, charging $10,000 for an annual retainer and an hourly fee of $145 – both of which are fairly standard for large law firms.
A detailed 99-page invoice indicated that ongoing lawsuits between former Memorial High School Principal Scott Cannao and Michelle Fernandez Lopez – a former town commissioner under Mayor Sal Vega who used to be the supervisor of the town’s gifted and talented program – as well as reviewing a April 19, 2013 report issued by the Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance (OFAC).
The report alleged that Mayor Felix Roque controlled the hirings and firings at the board of education, also accusing him of aggressively pressuring teachers into buying tickets to political fundraisers.
His administration vehemently denied the allegations put forth in the report and no criminal charges were ever filed as a result of the report.
The law firms La Corte, Bundy, Varady & Kinsella, Hackensack’s Nirenberg & Varano and Adams, Gutierrez & Lattiboudere, all charged the WNY BOE for relatively modest legal bills in the 2012-2013 school year: for amounts of $698.50, $4,990.20 and $1,857, respectively.
Finally, Florio, Perucci, Steinhardt & Fader racked up a bill of $61,314. 34 for the 2013-2014 school year with the aforementioned issues still a continued expense, as well as standard research, reviews, phone calls, etc.
Adams, Gutierrez & Lattiboudere also placed an invoice for a measly $134 between July 2013 and June 2014.
Joe DeMarco, the West New York Business Administrator from roughly July 2011 until July 2014 (who now serves in the same capacity in Bayonne), performed legal work in April, May and July of 2012, but did not charge for his services, according to invoices.
In total, the 66-month time period racked up a bill of $613,950.60. The average monthly legal bill was $9,302.28 during this time frame.
The school district, which, like Union City, is an Abbott School district and consists of nine public schools.
In North Bergen, the legal bills were tallied annually from July 1 to June 30 of any given year, but given the data requested, the 2009 bills reviewed covers January 1 through June 30.
The bills were also not specific as to the work performed, usually including a description along the lines of “legal services.”
Three separate attorneys/law firms consistently received work from January 1, 2009 and June 30, 2014: Joseph Ryglicki, the board attorney who was elected Hudson County surrogate in November, Johnson & Conway, LLP, of Ho Ho Kus, and Giblin & Giblin, of Oradell.
High-powered Secaucus law firm Chasan, Leyner & Lamparello, which serves as special counsel to the board, also received legal work on a fairly regular basis.
Between January 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010, Ryglicki was paid $45,555.82 for his work on legal matters. In the same 18-month period, Giblin & Giblin earned a $25,146 payout for their efforts.
For the same time frame, Kevin Hanly, of Wykoff, was compensated $10,579.20, while Johnson & Conway earned $1,908.04.
From July 1, 2010 until June 30, 2011, Ryglicki was paid $36,612.77, Chasan, Leyner & Lamparello earned $15,903.39, with Giblin & Giblin receiving a check for $12,352. Furthermore, Johnson & Conway received a relatively modest $4,003.18 payout as well.
For the 2011-2012 scholastic year, Ryglicki was compensated similar to the previous year, earning $37,495.05. Giblin & Giblin was paid $8,347, while James Madden, of Kearny, performed legal work for the board totaling $7,235.
Johnson & Conway also submitted a very small bill of $259.15 for that year.
Ryglicki received $37,631 for work performed in 2012-2013, with Giblin & Giblin earning $9,050. Additionally, Methfessel & Werbel, of Edison, submitted invoices for $6,788.65, and Chasan, Leyner & Lamparello was also paid $2,777.50.
Wolff, Helies, Duggan, Spaeth & Lucas, of Manasquan, had a modest bill of $1,203.84, with Hanly receiving a similar amount of $1,139.60. Johnson & Conway also received an inconsequential payment of $72.37 for the 2012-2013 school year.
In the 2013-2014 school year, Ryglicki earned another consistent figure of $40,785.50, with Chasan, Leyner & Lamparello nearly keeping pace with him by receiving a check for $36,073.14.
For the same year, Giblin & Giblin was paid $3,131 for legal services, and Adams, Stern, Gutierrez & Lattiboudere, of Newark, were also paid a meager $51.50.
With all the bills tallied between January 1, 2009 and June 30, 2014, the North Bergen Board of Education spent $344,960.25, with the average monthly bill coming out to $5,226.67.
North Bergen, a non-Abbott school district, consists of eight different schools (counting the pre-school).