North Bergen BOE spent $47k on failed appeals for stripped 2011 football title

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The North Bergen Board of Education spent just over $47,000 on bills related to a number of appeals regarding the 2011 football championship the Bruins won, which the team was stripped of by the NJSIAA due to illegally recruiting two players. 

North Bergen Bruins

By John Heinis/Hudson County View

According to legal bills forwarded to Hudson County View by attorney Mario Blanch – an ally of Mayor Nick Sacco antagonist Larry Wainstein – dating back to June 2012, the North Bergen BOE spent $47,185 on outside counsel Patrick J. Jennings, of Hackensack, to work on the appeal process.

Jennings’ first billing was the most substantial one, totaling $23,720 between the time frame of June 2012 and October 12, 2012.

The North Bergen Bruins, entering the 2011 North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4 Football Championship against the Montclair Mounties as big underdogs, notched a story-book ending to legendary coach Vincent Ascolese’s career when they captured the title with a touchdown pass on the last play of the game, via The Jersey Journal.

However, the glory was tainted a short five months after the fact, as the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) placed the Bruins on two-years probation for recruiting two players whom he urged to transfer schools, later providing them housing in an apartments he owned (h/t The Star-Ledger).

Things went from bad to worse when the Montclair Board of Education filed an appeal and the NJSIAA agreed that their initial punishment was too lenient, stripping the Bruins of the 2011 football championship in June 2012, as The Star-Ledger reported.

The first billing cycle revolved around appealing this decision, with itemized bills during this period ranging from cursory research, review and analysis of NJSIAA rules and regulations, to multiple telephone conferences and preparing briefs.

During this initial five-month period, Jennings charged $175 an hour and worked a total of 130.4 hours, also asking for reimbursement for letter delivery expenses, binders and copying.

The following six-week cycle between October 11, 2012 and November 26, 2012 saw Jennings get paid $12,070 from the North Bergen BOE, revolving around preparing briefs against the state Commissioner of Education.

An additional bill for $7,262.50 was submitted on November 9, 2012, but the work was all for naught, as the commissioner upheld the NJSIAA’s initial ruling.

In order to appeal that decision, Jennings performed $7,262.50, an identical bill from November 9, 2012, from the time period of January 1, 2013 until February 12, 2013.

The legal matter dealt with some significant down time in 2013, with the next bill not being submitted until June 17, 2013, for an amount of $4,132.50 for 76.3 hours of work.

In January 2014, the NJ commissioner of education’s decision was appealed, which the North Bergen BOE again lost, before a state appellate court shot down another appeal this April, and then the state Supreme Court again agreed with the initial NJSIAA decision last month, per The Jersey Journal.

The NB BOE initially vowed to take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, but thought better of it after veteran Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi, who now works for NJ Advanced Media, called the idea “insane.”

The township said at the time that their decision had nothing to do with costs or with media pressure on the issue.

Wainstein, who unsuccessfully ran against Sacco in May’s municipal election, was expectedly critical of the lengthy appeal process since he feels the money could’ve been better spent elsewhere.

“While there is a shortage of books and educational material for the students of North Bergen, the Board of Education wastes taxpayer money on legal fees,” Wainstein said in a statement.

” … The Board wasted in excess of $50,000 on legal fees in their futile attempt to challenge the decision of the State Athletic Commission taking the title away from the North Bergen football team because of the cheating by its coach.”

He also said that the move set a bad example for North Bergen students, since the BOE should’ve just “apologized for the wrongful behavior of the coach” and moved on, instead of “using the court system in an attempt to right a wrong.”

Juan P. Escobar, a spokesman for Sacco, said if Wainstein actually lived in North Bergen, he’d understand why the championship meant so much to everyone close to the team.

“When the Bruins won the state championship as tremendous underdogs defying incredible odds, the entire North Bergen community came together to celebrate the victory,” Escobar said in an email.

“That’s why the Board of Education fought to protect the championship, because the hard work and determination those young men displayed was worth standing up for.”

“As someone who doesn’t even live in North Bergen and has no real ties to this community, it’s not surprising that Larry Wainstein can’t understand this. Maybe if it was Franklin Lakes High School that won the title he would feel differently.”

Sacco’s team regularly attacked Wainstein over where his full-time residence is during the most recent municipal election cylce, though Wainstein has maintained he calls North Bergen home.

Vincent Ascolese, also a former assistant superintendent of schools, passed away in December after a long battle with cancel. The 2011 football championship in question remains vacated, as opposed to being awarded to Montclair.

A copy of the legal bills can be read here.