With $1.4 million in new bills, cost of law firm running Atlantic City now at $2.5 million

Jeffrey S. Chiesa (left), the state’s appointed overseer of Atlantic City, and Chris Filiciello, the mayor’s chief of staff

ATLANTIC CITY — The bills from the West Orange law firm tasked since November with running Atlantic City for the State of New Jersey now total $2.5 million, according to invoices released by the state late Wednesday.

The 42 newly released invoices, all approved by the state since the last release of invoices May 10, total $1.4 million for 27 members of the Chiesa, Shahinian & Giantomasi law firm. They were released in response to an Open Public Records Act request filed by the Inquirer. Previous invoices totaled $1.1 million.

Jeffrey S. Chiesa, a former U.S. senator and state attorney general who is a close ally of Gov. Christie, was appointed by the governor in November as the official designee to oversee the state’s takeover of Atlantic City. He negotiated a contract that allows him to bill at $400 an hour and also allows his entire law firm to bill the state for Atlantic City work. Other partners bill at $350 an hour, while associates bill at $240 an hour. Three paralegals billed at $90 an hour.

Meanwhile, two legislators who pushed for the takeover of Atlantic City now say the state has gone too far in imposing contract changes with the city’s Fire Department, which they say is acting “outside the scope” of what the takeover legislation intended.

State Sen. James Whelan and Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, who sponsored the takeover legislation, both submitted affidavits in a court case involving the firefighters union stating that the legislation was not meant to result in schedule changes for firefighters that affect public safety, and lead to “exhausted and depleted” firefighters and do not directly affect finances.  The affidavits were first reported by InsiderNJ.com.

The Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act gives the state the authority to unilaterally modify or terminate union contracts as it works to stabilize the seaside resort’s finances.

Lisa Ryan, a spokesman for the Department of Community Affairs, noted that a Superior Court judge allowed the schedule changes to go forward while a larger challenge to proposed layoffs and the law itself proceeds, and she denied that the state’s actions were contrary to the legislation’s intent.

Christie has defended the cost of the law firm, saying that taxpayers had wasted money on  the salaries of ineffective officials in Atlantic City for decades. He noted that the firm settled a $165 million tax-appeal debt with the Borgata casino for $72 million, saving taxpayers far more than the cost of its lawyers.

“What does it cost to let the city run into the ground over the course of time, paying City Council, mayors, expenses?” Christie said during a visit to Atlantic City in April. “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 rising cost of the law firm, especially as its lawyers look to pare back already-slimmed-down public safety worker contracts.

“Looks like we got robbed,” Brown said after the initial round of invoices were released.

After the second round, when bills passed $1 million,  Brown said: “The sound of political insiders self-dealing public assets while getting rich at the expense of Atlantic County families is an old, familiar song.”

“It’s so egregious,” he said Wednesday.

Bill Dilorenzo, the president of the firefighters union Local 188, said: “I really have no good reaction now.”

He said his thoughts were with members of the Atlantic City Fire Department as they cope with the death of firefighter Albert Mallen, who was struck by a train and killed Monday on the tracks of the NJ Transit Atlantic City line about two miles from the Absecon station.

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