TRENTON – Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Paul Sarlo, (D-36), of Wood-Ridge, questioned Attorney General Paula Dow Monday on engaging two noteworthy state counsels. Former state Attorney General and state Supreme Court Associate Justice Peter Verniero was brought on recently to help the state argue the latest round of Abbott v. Burke, the school funding case before the state Supreme Court.
Verniero is working pro bono, Dow said, but his firm, Sills Cummis & Gross, where Verniero is a partner, will not be working for free.
“Was that your decision?” Sarlo asked Dow.
She didn’t know whose decision it was exactly, but called it a “very smart and well-timed decision.”
“What we asked him to do was to partner with our team, lawyers who had been working in this area,” she said, noting the importance. “This case will define, in part, where the budget goes, this year and in years to come.”
Verniero was A.G. during two rounds of arguments for the case in the late 1990s.
“Rough budget on how much for that law firm?” Sarlo asked.
She said $100,000 has been budgeted, but, “It might slightly increase.”
Sarlo made some undercutting comments about Verniero’s past, like the fact that some Republican senators present voted for the former justice to step down from his role on the bench when accusations about his handling of racial profiling at the A.G.’s Office surfaced.
Sarlo also mentioned that Verniero is the only former Supreme Court justice who did not step down from Gov. Chris Christie’s Judicial Review Panel after Christie chose not to re-appoint associate Justice John Wallace last year.
Moving on, Sarlo asked about the hiring of Washington, D.C., hired guns Patton Boggs to mediate the federal government’s request for reimbursement of funds meant for the ill-fated ARC Tunnel project.
Dow said, “We needed the expertise of a national law firm.”
Even though the top-level representation cost the state a pretty penny – $443,000 in the peak month of January – she said it was worth it, since the state avoided paying a $271 million bill to the feds.
State Sen. Kevin O’Toole, (R-40), of Cedar Grove, wasn’t happy that Sarlo dredged up decade-old GOP votes to make his point about Verniero.
O’Toole likened it to Republicans publicly recalling vote after Democratic vote for the likes of former Middlesex Sheriff Joe Spicuzzo, who sat on the Sports and Exposition Authority, or any members of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Authority, some of who were aligned with Democratic legislators.
“Let’s be fair about it,” O’Toole said, adding a question to Dow of how the PVSC investigations were going.
“The investigation continues,” she said, as does the Spicuzzo investigation.