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AC law-firm bills in: 'Looks like we just got robbed,' says GOP official

Amy S. Rosenberg

Updated: Friday, March 24, 2017, 8:50 PM

FILE: Jeff Chiesa in the Statehouse, in Trenton, N.J., after Gov. Christie announced Chiesa's nomination for attorney general.

ATLANTIC CITY -- Former U.S. Sen. Jeff Chiesa, who negotiated a retention agreement that covers his entire law firm when he was appointed by the state to oversee Atlantic City, has submitted more than $287,000 worth of bills for the firm since November.

About $80,000 of that has been billed by Chiesa himself, who bills at a rate of $400 an hour, said Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs, which has broad authority over Atlantic City under a state takeover.

She said the invoices cover the period from November through January.

Four partners and six associates also have billed the state for work in Atlantic City since November, including Ron Israel, Chiesa's chief point man on city matters.

One partner, Kenneth Laptook, a commercial litigation specialist, billed more than $40,700 for 116 hours of work, mostly marked "review" and "conference call" and meetings. On behalf of the city, the law firm negotiated a $72 million settlement with the Borgata hotel casino over an outstanding $165 million debt from a tax appeal during this time.

Not including Chiesa, the bills released by the state late Friday total about $207,000. They cover Israel at $350 an hour, associates at $240 an hour, and paralegals at $90 an hour. The invoices submitted by Chiesa are still pending approval, Ryan said.

State Assemblyman Chris Brown, a Republican who has been critical of the Christie takeover, said of the invoices: "The governor handing over the city to a political insider without a transparent plan is like leaving your home without locking the door. And it looks like we just got robbed."

The information was released by the Attorney General's Office after an open public records request by the Inquirer and other news organizations.

Bruce Solomon, a deputy attorney general in charge of records, said the invoices represented what was submitted, and that there could be additional bills covering the same time frame. He said there was an adjustment of just under $6,000 and that the total approved was just over $201,000.

Chiesa, who has been trying to cut salaries in the police and fire departments in Atlantic City and has called union negotiations a "money grab," said earlier this week that there is "no cap" on the fees of his own law firm. The fees are organized by subject matter, and cover topics that include legal research and strategizing.

Chiesa has been focused primarily on renegotiating and imposing pay cuts and other changes to the police and fire department contracts, changes which are currently hung up in court. He also wants to lay off 100 firefighters, which a judge has blocked.

Bill Dilorenzo, president of the firefighters union local, said about the invoices: "I'm more concerned with how many firemen we're going to have at the end of this to keep the city safe. I'm not concerned about other things I can't control."

Chiesa, a former state attorney general, is a partner in the law firm of Chiesa, Shahinian & Giantomasi, formerly Wolff & Samson, whose former partner, David Samson -- another close ally of Gov. Christie -- was recently sentenced to probation and home confinement on a bribery conviction related to a United Airlines flight to his vacation home in South Carolina.

In an interview this week, Chiesa said his firm's bills will "speak for themselves" and that there was "no cap" on the fees.

Residents and elected officials in Atlantic City fought the law that imposed a state takeover in November. The law grants Chiesa, as designee of the state's Division of Local Government Services director Tim Cunningham, vast powers over Atlantic City's operations, budgets, and assets.

Residents are organizing to block any sale of the city's Municipal Utilities Authority to a private company, and the unions have gone to court to challenge the law.

In his initial ruling, Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled the law acceptable under the New Jersey Constitution, allowable under the state's police powers in an emergency, but said the law itself required that any unilateral actions by the state be "reasonable" and related to the city's economic crisis.

Atlantic City has been burned before by state-imposed overseers, whose billing outpaced any accomplishments. Ernst & Young has billed millions in contracts working for the state on Atlantic City matters.

On the other side of the ledger, Chris Howard, the director of the state's Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, said in an email Thursday that 15 percent of its staff was being laid off. The CRDA, the controversial authority that reinvests a tax on casino revenue of 1.5 percent, lost its primary funding this year in the bill that redirected the money to Atlantic City itself.

Note: An early version of this story incorrectly referred to Christopher Paladino, head of the ACDevCo organization that is building Stockton's A.C. campus, as being listed on the invoices "of counsel." The person who was listed was Christopher Paldino, with the lawfirm.

Amy S. Rosenberg

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