North Bergen had been employing an attorney in a “no-work” job for years and pays its municipal counsel more than double what some of the state’s largest cities pay their attorneys, according to report released today by the state comptroller’s office.
The findings were part of an audit conducted of five local governments and school districts to determine whether oversight of legal fees exists at the local level.
In addition to the findings in North Bergen, the comptroller found that West New York paid their legal counsel at hourly attorney rates for routine clerical work that should have been free of charge under the contract with the attorney and the Freehold school district paid 30 different attorneys from the same law firm to provide legal services in a single year.
In Plainfield, the school board attorney billed the district thousands of dollars for routine administrative work that the firm admitted should not have been billed, as well as for services such as attendance at school board meetings that should have been covered under the firm’s retainer.
In North Bergen, the audit conducted by Comptroller Matthew Boxer found that an attorney had been paid a salary of $18,800 for “years” and was included in the state pension system. The attorney received taxpayer funded health benefits from the township costing more than $26,000 per year. However, township officials could not say what work the attorney actually performed. When Boxer’s office pressed for information on the position, the attorney resigned.
According to the report, the attorney told auditors that he had been hired sometime between 1988 and 1990 as the township’s housing attorney, but was never provided with a job description and did not report to anyone at the township.
He said that until 2006 he received work as the housing attorney but the work stopped after a falling out with the construction official. He then had to make his own work, he told auditors.
The finding has been referred to the Hudson County prosecutor’s office and the state Division of Criminal Justice.
In a separate finding, the comptroller found that in 2011, North Bergen paid its municipal attorney, Herbert Klitzner, $207,870 as well as $16,469 in unused sick time. According to information provided by the League of Municipalities to the comptroller, that salary made the attorney the highest paid municipal attorney in the state and was between 35 percent and 124 percent more than the salary paid to the attorney in the state’s four largest cities.
The audit also questioned whether Klitzner violated ethics laws by referring additional legal work to lawfirm Chasan Leyner & Lamparello, P.C., where he is Of Counsel. In 2011, Chasan billed the township more than $370,000 for legal work.
Klitzner told the comptroller that he does not receive a salary from Chasan but is given office space and support service from the firm. According to the audit, Klitzner alone decides what work should be done in-house and what should be delegated to outside counsel and which lawfirm the work should be delegated to.
In 2011 The Record of Bergen County conducted an investigation of Klitzner and Chasan, finding that the company had billed North Bergen more than $1.8 million between 2004 and 2011. According to that report, a state ethics panel had advised Klitzner there was nothing wrong with referring work to Chasan, despite his relationship with the firm.
Both Chasan and Klitzner have been donors to Sacco and to the township’s Democratic organization over the years. Since 1999, Chasan has donated at least $13,600 to Sacco’s runs for office in both North Bergen and the state Senate, while Klitzner has donated $7,400 over the past four years to the North Bergen Democratic Committee.
Chasan Managing Partner Ralph Lamparello is the president of the state bar association.
As part of the audit, the attorney found to have a no work job claimed that he was routinely solicited for political donations to a local party committee and had donated $17,000 since 2009.
The attorney told the comptrollers office that three months before the audit, Klitzner had asked him for a $1,000 donation to a political action committee opposing a rival of Mayor Nicholas Sacco. Shortly after the comptroller inquired about the donation, the money was returned.