City council asked to cough up cash for employees' legal fees

Newark city council members will review requests by Middy Baraka, along with two top city officials, to have their legal bills paid for by the city Credits: Elana Knopp
Kenyatta Stewart, corporation counsel for the City of Newark, argued yesterday that the city should foot the legal bills for Middy Baraka, along with two other city officials. Credits: Elana Knopp
Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins questioned the validity of requests for the city to foot the bill for legal fees stemming from the Willie Parker case Credits: Elana Knopp

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's brother along with two other city employees who are defendants in a federal lawsuit, are asking taxpayers to pick up their legal bills.

Middy Baraka, the mayor's chief of staff, along with Personnel Director Kecia Daniels and Business Administrator Jack Kelly, are asking the city to cover up to $200,000 of their legal bills for defense of a suit filed by former city attorney Willie Parker.

Recently, the council approved a payment of $60,000 towards the mayor's own legal representation.

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The request came up at a City Councilpdf meeting Thursday but hit the proverbial brick wall after the validity of the request was called into question.

Council members were asked to authorize a payment of up to $125,000 out of the 2017 and 2018 city budgets to pay the law office of Greenbaum, Rowe Smith and Davis, attorneys representing Middy Baraka, along with up to $75,000 for legal fees to Tompkins, McGuire, Wachenfeld and Barry, attorneys for Daniels and Kelly.

The legal fees stem from a suit Parker filed in U.S. District Court in June alleging the city, the mayor, his brother, Kelly and Daniels retaliated against him after he refused to sign off on a multi-million-dollar development deal.

The suit alleges that after Parker refused to execute the deal between the city and a developer, the chief of staff showed up at Parker’s home with armed security guards.

The suit further claims that Middy Baraka told Parker to “tell the mayor that you didn’t hear what you say you heard or that you misunderstood what you heard,” with the incident marking the beginning of an alleged string of retaliatory measures against Parker.

In October, 2016, Parker suffered a heart attack and was asked to resign just months later. He was ultimately fired and is now seeking punitive damages between $1 million and $5 million.

The defendants have each filed responses last week in court denying the allegations, with Baraka filing a cross claim against his brother, Kelly and Daniels, and demanding monetary compensation and indemnification from his co-defendants should any judgment be made against them. 

Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins cautioned her council colleagues after the ordinances were brought before the council for approval, citing a 1981 ordinance establishing procedures for the processing of claims and lawsuits against elected municipal officials.

The ordinance, passed under former Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson, specifically established a policy regarding reimbursement of elected officials for costs of defending civil and criminal charges.

The councilwoman came prepared with copies of the ordinance and handed them out to the council members.

Chaneyfield Jenkins, who voted against picking up the tab for the mayor's legal fees, said the ordinance calls for reimbursement of counsel fees at a “reasonable rate,” also noting that the ordinance ensured that the city wasn’t used "as an ATM."

Arguing that agreeing to foot the bill for the special counsel fees would be setting an unwanted precedent, Chaneyfield Jenkins cautioned council members.

“We’re contemplating doing something and ignoring our own ordinances,” she told her council colleagues, asking them to look at the 1981 ordinance. “Lawyers will be encouraged to create bills when they realize the city’s paying for it.”

The councilwoman asked the council not to authorize the payments and stated that more transparency was needed.

“Residents should not have to pay for it,” she told council members regarding the fees. “No one should come forth with an ordinance unless they tell residents that they are footing the bill. Were you informed of a dollar amount? How much are they charging an hour? Will this council now put up an ordinance that is more specific and refined?"

Kenyatta Stewart, corporation council for Newark, argued that municipalities paid for civil suits up front, telling Chaneyfield Jenkins that he was “trying to peruse” the ordinance that she had handed out.

Stewart also called into question whether ithe ordinance could be used as precedent, stating that while legal fees in a criminal matter would not be covered by the city, fees generated from a civil matter would.

“Are you saying that these ordinances have a shelf life?” Chaneyfield Jenkins asked Stewart.

“It’s hard to respond to an article in an ordinance that I received a few moments ago,” Stewart said.

Council members agreed to hand the issue over for review to Elmer Hermann and Ron Thompson, counsel for the city council. 

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