PATERSON, NJ – City officials have asked two state agencies to investigate what they are calling possible misconduct involving the former head of Paterson’s municipal law department, according to confidential emails.
The emails were written by Paterson’s Corporation Counsel Paul Forsman and focus on the actions of his predecessor, Susan Champion, who held the city government’s top legal job during Jose “Joey” Torres’ mayoral administration.
The emails say that Champion - while serving as the lead of the municipal law department – may have benefited from fees the city paid to one of the partners in her private law firm, Patrick Caserta, for his work representing Paterson police officers in criminal and civil cases.
Along with the emails, PatersonPress.com also has obtained more than a dozen city documents that are part of the inquiry, including a 2004 letter from Caserta requesting a $500 fee from the city. That letter is addressed to Champion in her role as Paterson’s Corporation Counsel and also has Champion’s name listed on the letterhead as one of Caserta’s partners.
“I am concerned that there may be substantial misconduct here,’’ Forsman wrote in a recent email to Paterson Business Administrator Charles Thomas. “ I think this needs to go the DCA (Department of Community Affairs) or the AG (Attorney General).
“This needs to be independent of the possibility of political influence,’’ continued Forsman’s email. “I do not know if other persons in City Hall were aware that a Corporation Counsel may have been benefited by City contracts. I cannot say that as a factual matter unless there is a credible outside investigation. I think DCA may be the best choice.’’
In a subsequent email that Forsman sent to Thomas on February 22, he said he had reported his concerns to a representative of the DCA “in writing and in person” and delivered documents to the state Office of Attorney Ethics on Feb. 15, 2012.’’
Mayor Jeffrey Jones said he has not read Forsman’s emails, but supports the requests for outside investigations. “We have to protect the city at all costs,’’ Jones said. “We had to move on this as expeditiously as possible.’’
In a phone interview and a series of email exchanges, Champion said she has done nothing wrong. She pointed out that the city’s law department does not pick the lawyers who are hired to represent police officers. That’s something the police officers themselves do, usually through a referral list provided by their unions, police and city officials said.
Champion also provided a chronology comparing her term as Corporation Counsel with the time period during which she and Caserta were partners in the Wayne law firm that now goes by the name of Hunziker, Jones and Sweeney. Champion’s chronology indicated that her job with the city coincided with the period when she and Caserta were partners at the same firm twice – for one 22-day period from July 1 to July 22 in 2002 and another nine-month stretch from January 1 through September 30 in 2004.
“I do not know specifically how much Pat billed for police officer work during that time period,’’ said Champion. “It was probably something. If something was billed it would have gone to the firm.’’
None of Forsman’s emails or the documents attached to them includes a comprehensive list of the legal bills that he believes should be part of the state inquiries, or what their total value is. When contacted by PatersonPress.com for this story, Forsman declined to comment.
Forsman’s emails indicate that part of Champion’s job as head of the municipal legal department was to approve payment on bills submitted by private lawyers, like Caserta, that do work for the city. “Pat Caserta told me that Susan Champion shared in City fees paid to her law firm while she was serving as Corp. Counsel for the City,’’ Forsman wrote in one of his emails.
When asked whether she authorized city payments to Caserta while the two of them were law partners, Champion responded, “I would like to clarify the nature of my oversight of the police defense bills. The rate of payment or hourly rate is set by ordinance. One of my support staff would add up the numbers and check the arithmetic. I would review the bill in general to see if the hours were unreasonable and the matter was shipped to finance.’’
“My general recollection is that most of the time for those 9 months in 2004 I asked Allen Zaks to sign off on Pat’s bill,’’ she said, referring to a long-time staff attorney in the Paterson legal department who remains in that position.
When asked by PatersonPres.com whether he handled Caserta’s bills to allow Champion to avoid a possible conflict, Zaks said, “I don’t remember signing off on any bills, but it’s possible. It’s so long ago. It sounds like it makes sense because of the relationship between them. But I really don’t remember.’’
Champion said she have signed off on “one or two” of Caserta’s bills. She described the extent of the work as “a ministerial act without any discretion.”
Champion also said, “I believe the point is that Paul’s allegations of massive wrongdoing have now been reduced to my potentially checking the math on Pat’s bills during a nine month period. I stand by my position that this was not a conflict of interest.’’
In an interview with PatersonPress.com, Caserta said that he had been representing city police officers since the 1980s, long before he became Champion’s law partner. He said Champion had no role in assigning any cases to him.
When asked about the conversation described in Forsman’s email, Caserta said he could not recall details of what had been discussed. When asked if Champion benefited from legal fees that the city paid to him, Caserta said payments have not yet been made on many cases, “I’m not sure if anyone has benefited yet.’’
Caserta also confirmed Champion’s chronology on when the two of them had been law partners. Caserta left the firm on September 30, 2004 in a business breakup that became increasing contentious and resulted in litigation.
Although much of the city legal work involved in the inquiry was performed well in the past, in some cases as long as eight years ago, the Caserta bills have become entangled in the recent lawsuit between Caserta and the Hunziker law firm.
As part of the settlement of that lawsuit, which was reached this past December, Caserta must pay his former firm $75,000. As a result of that settlement, the Hunziker firm is seeking to collect tens of thousands of dollars in fees that Paterson allegedly owes Caserta. In fact, a court order on the settlement says Champion was supposed to go to the Paterson finance department offices to review the bills and “secure payments.’’
One invoice Caserta submitted to the city on January 26, 2012 seeks payment for $28,000 in work. Over the years, the Paterson law department has budgeted more than $200,000 for cases handled by Caserta for which he has not yet been paid, city documents show.
The recent efforts by Champion’s law firm to collect payments for Caserta’s work for the city seem to have prompted Forsman to take a closer look at the situation, although his emails indicate this was something he has been examining for almost a year.
Spokeswomen for the DCA and Office on Attorney Ethics declined to comment on the city’s request that those state entities investigate Champion’s actions.
Forsman also has recommended that the Jones administration and city council hire special legal counsel to investigate the situation, a move that largely stems from Forsman’s own potential conflict.
The lawyers that the Hunziker firm hired for its lawsuit with Caserta, Trapanese and Trapanese of Little Falls, also are involved in a Monmouth County litigation over Forsman’s mother’s estate. The Trapanese firm, which has been working on collecting Caserta’s fees from Paterson on behalf of the Hunziker firm, had filed an ethics complaint against Forsman, according to the confidential emails.
The ethics complaint originally had been settled, but has been reactivated, Forsman told Thomas, the business administrator, in an email. Forsman wrote to Thomas that he was concerned that if he were “nullified’ from the inquiry “this matter might well be concealed.”
Several council members who received copies of Forsman’s emails as members of the finance committee said they want to see the mater investigated as thoroughly and quickly as possible.
“This calls for an immediate investigation, and by immediate, I mean now,’’ said Councilman Andre Sayegh. “The taxpayers deserve better and we all deserve answers.’’
“This should be of the highest priority,’’ said Councilman Aslon Goow. “It’s clearly official misconduct. There’s no doubt in my mind.’’
Sayegh and Goow both have been political opponents of Champion’s old boss, former mayor Torres. Sayegh ran against him in the 2010 election that they both lost to Jones. Goow, meanwhile, ran for mayor in 2002 when Torres won his first term, has a pending lawsuit involving Torres and now is facing a challenge from Torres’ wife, Sonia, in the upcoming 2nd Ward council election.
In his emails, Forsman also questioned why payment requests for Caserta’s work were only kept in hard-copy, as opposed to electronic form. He raises suspicions in those emails over the fact that the Caserta files were packed in boxes and put in storage as Champion was leaving office.
Forsman also said in the emails that Champion apparently authorized a payment on more than $18,000 for Caserta’s work on July 2, 2010, the day after Jones’ mayoral term began and Torres’ had ended. At that point, Forsman said in his emails, Champion was no longer head of the law department and should not have signed off on the payment.
Champion disagreed with that account. She said she stayed on as Paterson’s Corporation Counsel as a “hold-over” until July 5 and initially planned to remain in the position until Jones picked someone else. Champion said he left sooner because of Forsman’s “belligerent attitude” towards her.
“As you can see from my earlier correspondence, the transition was not being accomplished with any level of civility,’’ Champion said. “ I was basically locked out of the office and left. Until that time I continued to do my job. I believe they changed the locks on the office July 5th."
But Jones said in an interview for this story that Champion’s role as head of the city legal department ended on June 30, 2010. He said he had directed that she and several other Torres department heads leave their positions once he took office.
Forsman’s emails say that Champion only left the city law offices after Thomas, as the city’s new business administrator, insisted she do so.
Champion also dispute Forsman’s description and criticism of the handling of the paper files on Caserta’s bills. “If files were put into storage, that was his choice,’’ Champion said of Forsman.
Champion did acknowledge there were concerns about her partnership with Caserta and whether it constituted a conflict when she initially took the job as City Corporation Counsel in July 2002.
Several weeks after Torres named her Corporation Counsel in 2002, she said she resigned from the Hunziker law firm because of a provision in the state ethics guidelines for New Jersey attorneys, known as the Rules of Professional Conduct, which recommended avoiding any “appearance of impropriety.’’ Champion said she and her law partners thought it best she resign from the firm, even though they believed there was no actual conflict, only the possible appearance of one.
After her resignation, Champion maintained the offices for her own private practice at the same Route 46 building where the Hunziker firm was located. But, she said, she had “no financial connection” with the firm during that period and paid her own rent, utilities and insurance and maintained her own ledger books and trust accounts.
In 2003, Champion said, the state Supreme Court abolished the “appearance of impropriety” provision. On January 1, 2004 she rejoined the Hunziker firm, which made her Caserta’s partner once again.