It’s been a year since Stevens Institute of Technology filed a defamation suit against the non-profit waterfront organization Fund for a Batter Waterfront (FBW), which had criticized Stevens’ development projects, and the battle is continuing.
The Stevens Institute, a private non-profit university in Hoboken, charged in its January, 2003 suit that FBW and its two principals made costly and misleading statements when they opposed aspects of Stevens’ ongoing development.
New depositions were given in the case this past Jan. 9.
Two years ago, FBW opposed aspects of Stevens’ excavation and construction of the Babbio Center for Technology Management, a six-story 95,000 square-foot waterfront building that will be used for executive training and technology management programs. The building is slated to also have a parking garage on top of the property, and Stevens will go before the Zoning Board to get permission to include it in the project next week.
After FBW repeatedly objected to the project in correspondences to the media and municipal boards two years ago, Stevens filed litigation in January of 2003 against FBW, FBW’s executive director, Ron Hine, and FBW’s president, Aaron Lewit.
FBW had objected to Stevens’ project for several reasons, including charging that its excavation was an alleged safety hazard due to naturally occurring asbestos in the serpentine rock that the facility is being built into.
To construct the building and to prepare for the proposed parking garage, the school excavated nearly 40 feet deep into the rock.
It is the asbestos issue that is the center of the defamation litigation. Stevens’ suit alleges that Hine and Lewit engaged in a “malicious pattern of false and accusatory statements” when it came to asbestos in the rocks, in order create public hysteria and gain support against the project. The type of asbestos in the rock, they say, is not dangerous. A scientist at Columbia University eventually backed this up.
What would Hine and Lewit stand to gain? There is a piece of property on the central waterfront managed by two developers, Daniel Gans and George Vallone. Gans and Vallone wanted to build housing there and have the FBW as the conservator for their five-acre waterfront park. The Stevens Institute was hoping to buy the property and actually made public statements indicating that the property was part of its development plans, which would mean that FBW would not get to run the park.
Hine says that this accusation is false, as talks between his group and Gans and Vallone stopped in November of 2001. Since that time, Stevens has dropped its plans to try to acquire the property, and Gans and Vallone decided to let the city of Hoboken run the park, while they build residential housing.
There were actually times when the FBW wasn’t the only group complaining about Stevens’ construction. During excavation on April 9, 2002, there was an asbestos reading that was above the state Department of Environmental Protection’s guidelines for public safety. The DEP has a stringent standard that is used to determine whether children may re-enter a school building after asbestos has been removed or abated. At that point, while there was a drought, the school received permission to begin watering the site daily to cut down on airborne particles. In addition to watering the site, Stevens supplied the city’s Health Department and the DEP with daily air quality reports, none of which exceeded the DEP standards.
State DEP guidelines say that a single exposure to asbestos “does not imply an immediate health threat. Asbestos exposure becomes a health concern when high concentrations of asbestos fibers are inhaled over a long period.”
Then, on April 24, the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission ordered a company hired by Stevens to stop dumping the rocks at the Carlstadt Landfill. They were told to remove any material containing asbestos. Stevens took the rock to a different location.
The report was eventually refuted by a scientist at Columbia University who said the “asbestos fibers are not an issue of public health in relation to either Castle Point or Carlstadt Landfill dumping.” It was too late, however; Stevens apparently had already spent the money to move the rock.
The city of Hoboken also stopped Stevens’ construction for a time. Activists had been complaining that it looked like they were building their garage rather than just the Babbio Center. Stevens did not yet have permission for the garage.
After a legal battle with City Hall, Stevens was allowed to continue construction as long as it was not construction on the garage. The garage is up for a hearing this week.
The FBW, which for years has opposed various private waterfront projects they deemed too large, certainly could pose a threat to Stevens in the future, as Stevens released three years ago its master plan for how it wants to develop its area of the waterfront.
FBW says that Stevens just wants to shut them up.
Hine said, “Their intent is to tie up our resources and time so we don’t have any time to be opposed to any of their development projects.”
Stevens say that FBW’s objections were deliberately misleading and malicious, and that this cost them “unnecessary charges” of approximately $1 million in additional disposal fees and related costs.
“The defendant’s actions have cost us significantly in reputation and increased costs on a project, as well as legal fees,” said Stevens spokeswoman Cass Bruton-Ward.
Deserving to be silenced?
Hine’s attorney Renee Steinhagen said Tuesday that Stevens is “misusing litigation” and that the lawsuit is “public relations strategy to discredit the Fund” because it objects to Stevens’ development projects, especially the garage.
Bruton-Ward said that the litigation is not an attempt to waste FBW’s resources so the organization can’t oppose Stevens’ projects.
“If the defendants truly wanted this case resolved promptly, it’s hard to understand why they would not have already provided us with all of the discovery that they owe us and that we are entitled to,” said Bruton-Ward. “Because of the defendant’s failure to do this, it looks like we may have no choice but to go back to court for an order compelling the defendants to produce this discovery.”
Stevens claims that Hine and FBW have tried to divert conversation from the real issue.
“Let’s not obscure what this case is about,” said Bruton-Ward. “It is about deliberate, malicious defamation, knowingly put forth to caused damage…This litigation will prove that FBW knowingly made false statements about asbestos and about Stevens’ actions.”
Steinhagen said Tuesday that it’s “far-fetched” to say that commenting publicly about asbestos at a construction site is tantamount to malicious defamation, especially since even Stevens admits that there was a certain amount of naturally occurring asbestos at the site.
Stevens wants info on developers
On Friday, Jan. 9, lawyers for both sides were before New Jersey Superior Court Judge Camille Kenny in Jersey City to argue two motions.
The first was a motion by Stevens to compel the depositions of Gans and Vallone.
Vallone and Gans are managing the development of the former Maxwell House Coffee factory at 11th and Hudson streets. Prior to receiving the approvals for 832 units, they entered into negotiations with FBW to create a public park on the property. The developers would donate the property to the city and the Fund would oversee a conservancy that would have been formed.
In a brief, FBW lawyers argued that the motion to compel the testimony of Gans and Vallone is “harassing, wasteful, and ill-motivated, as well as intended and designed to use up the Fund’s time and energy, [and] minimize its effectiveness in the community.”
Lawyers for Gans and Vallone argued that such discovery would give Stevens an unfair competitive advantage because of Stevens’ past interest in the Maxwell House property.
Stevens’ spokesperson Cass Bruton-Ward said there is no unfair competitive advantage because “Stevens has no present relationship with Gans and Vallone, and no longer seeks to acquire or develop the Maxwell House property.’ “
The judge ruled that Gans and Vallone could not be compelled to give a deposition, but that FBW has to submit documents it has about its negotiations with Gans and Vallone as discovery.
Both sides claimed victory. Hine said the decision was a win because Gans and Vallone were not made to testify, and sent around an e-mail on Friday mentioning this twist and criticizing Stevens’ upcoming garage project. Stevens said the ruling was advantageous to their side because it shows that the information regarding Gans and Vallone is relevant to this case.
FBW wants testimony from consultants
The second motion was a cross motion from FBW to compel answers from former Stevens Vice President Roger Cole, who was at the time working as a consultant on development issues.
Cole was deposed on Nov. 4, 2003 and answered most questions, but was advised by counsel not to comment on correspondence between himself and Hoboken-based public relations consultant Jeff Faria because of attorney-client privilege.
Neither Cole nor Faria is an attorney, but Stevens argued that the correspondence was needed for aiding an attorney for the purpose of giving legal advice.
Hine said that Faria and Cole are not attorneys and thus should not be protected.
The court ruled that Stevens has to certify the nature of Faria’s role as a consultant. “The court simply did not have what it needed regarding Mr. Faria’s role, and it gave Stevens time to produce documents showing Mr. Faria’s role as a consultant in this legal matter,” said Bruton-Ward.
It is known that Faria sent around an e-mail that made accusations against Hine in the past.
Faria sent out an e-mail to local development activists last January hinting that he might be able to convince Stevens to pay for a PR campaign “unrelated to Stevens.” The plan would get the Maxwell House buildings certified as historic so they could not be razed for development.
Faria’s e-mail was spurred by a New York Times article regarding the problematic hedge fund that owned the development property. Faria said his campaign would “scuttle” any possibility that the owners might “flip” the property or sell it to another developer.
“Stevens, I can now announce, is suing Hine for libel,” read Faria’s e-mail to local activists. “As such, I believe I can persuade them to fund some substantial advertising for a movement (unrelated to Stevens) to get the buildings certified as historic, which would scuttle this scheme.”
The e-mail continues, “Hine has completely sold out this town. We can not let him get away with this, and we cannot let a developer subsequently come in and rape that property so that a hedge fund can bail itself out.”
Faria explained in the e-mail: “Gans, Vallone and Hine were front men. Gans and Vallone gave the illusion of a local developer. Hine gave the project the waterfront activist’s seal of approval…His master stroke was creating a bogus story about Stevens’ spreading asbestos all over town.”
Last week, Faria said that he sent the e-mail because activists in town had been talking about saving the historic buildings, and that he sent it on his own and not as a representative of Stevens. He said that there wasn’t interest in pursuing the campaign among activists, so in the end, he did not approach Stevens about it.
He said that he supports Gans and Vallone’s building of a project they can be proud of, “something that will bring open space and other benefits for future generations of Hoboken citizens.” He also said the suit wasn’t his idea, but that he doesn’t have much faith in Hine.
“Hine is FBW’s ‘president for life,’ ” Faria claimed Wednesday. “If I don’t like the way FBW is run, I can’t join up and lobby to elect a new leader…Hine doesn’t like opposition from within FBW, and has pretty much successfully stamped it out. Now he wants to eliminate outside opposition as well, by demonizing institutions like Stevens and citizens like myself … who have spoken up about him.”