Bills from law firm running Atlantic City for state now top $1 million

NJ Attorney General
Jeffrey Chiesa, a former state attorney general who briefly served as a U.S. Senator, was appointed by Gov. Christie to be a $400-an-hour chief designee overseeing Atlantic City. Chiesa, in turn, negotiated fees for his West Orange law firm, Chiesa, Shahinian & Giantomasi.

ATLANTIC CITY  — Newly released invoices from the West Orange law firm charged with running Atlantic City for the state bring the total billed to the public for the work to more than $1.1 million.

More than two dozen invoices released by the Department of Law document more than $873,000 due the firm of Chiesa, Shahinian & Giantomasi.

They cover reviewing, litigating, strategizing, and advising on matters ranging from negotiations and court matters with police and fire unions to reviewing City Council work.

The invoices include more than $300,000 related to battling the city's public worker unions, including one of more than $186,000 that included bills from 10 attorneys.

The state has imposed contract changes and pay cuts on the police and fire departments, and is seeking additional cutbacks and layoffs. The unions are fighting those cuts in court, where a judge has blocked the state from proposed layoffs that would cut the fire department in half.

The new invoices are in addition to $287,000 worth released in March.

A new budget adopted by the city includes a 5 percent tax decrease.

The response from unions to the amount of billings was swift

"Who's really making out here?" tweeted the firefighters' union account. "Once again the politically connected rewarded while public safety is scapegoated."

And from Policeman's Benevolent Association Local 24: "Shhh they don't like when people find out how much we are paying them."

The takeover of Atlantic City, long sought by Gov. Christie, began in November, and has been fiercely resisted by local officials, unions, residents, and civil-liberties groups. The resort town has been reeling from the closure of five casinos and costly casino tax appeals that put it hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

Many here believe the takeover will end when Christie's term ends in January 2018, but are preparing to fight any attempt by the state to sell off the valuable Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA), whose water reserves and assets are valued at $100 million.

One invoice labeled "MUA" that was released by the state was initially sent blank. It was later resent by the state attorney general's records office to include bills totaling $13,734.92, split among seven partners of the law firm.

The bills, which have many details redacted for attorney-client privilege, were for things like "Legal Analysis of [Redacted]" and "Internal meeting Regarding [Redacted]."

A second one that was initially blank included $12,490 in bills related to reviewing City Council work.

The most recent invoices cover the period between March 24 to May 10. They were released late Wednesday in response to an Open Public Records Request by the Inquirer and Daily News.

Christie appointed Jeffrey S. Chiesa, a former state attorney general who briefly served as a U.S. senator, to be a $400-an-hour chief designee overseeing Atlantic City. He in turn negotiated fees for his entire firm, including paralegals.

Christie recently declared that the city had turned a corner after Chiesa's firm negotiated a settlement on a costly tax appeal with Borgata, and Hard Rock International purchased the Taj Mahal for a reported $50 million. Borgata, which was owed more than $165 million, agreed to accept $72 million. It is owned by MGM International.

In recent remarks to reporters, Christie defended the bills from the law firm, whose partners and associates bill between $25o and $350 an hour, saying taxpayers had wasted money on  the salaries of ineffective officials in Atlantic City for decades.

"What does it cost to let the city run into the ground over the course of time, paying City Council, mayors, expenses?" Christie said. "If you compare the results that Sen. Chiesa has gotten with what he’s billed with what you all have paid to the people who have been running the city into the ground, Sen. Chiesa is the biggest bargain around."

But others, including Assemblyman Chris Brown (R., Atlantic), a critic of the takeover, had harsh words for the bills. "Looks like we got robbed," Brown said after the initial round of invoices were released.

Asked for comment on this latest billing, Brown said via email: "The sound of political insiders self-dealing public assets while getting rich at the expense of Atlantic County families is an old, familiar song, only this song has a new beat, so keep your ears open for the sound of Chiesa and his band disregarding​ every expert opinion and selling​ the water company and Bader Field out from under the public. Now that's a real sad tune."

The lawyers appear to have accounted for every minute they spent working for the state related to Atlantic City. Ronald Israel, the state's main negotiator and litigator against the police and fire unions, had one entry billing for 0.1 of an hour for $35. That's six minutes for a $350-an-hour attorney.