A New Jersey administrative law judge has reversed a 2013 Local Finance Board ruling that Hoboken City Councilman-at-Large Ravinder Bhalla violated state ethics law by voting to award a contract to a lawyer with whom he shared an office.
In a summary decision issued on Sept. 19, Judge James Geraghty found that Bhalla’s joint lease and shared receptionist with criminal attorney Paul Condon did not create a conflict of interest that precluded Bhalla from voting to renew Condon’s contract with the city in 2010.
The state had issued its Notice of Violation against Bhalla in August 2013 as he geared up to run for re-election to the City Council on Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s ticket. During the campaign, opponents of Zimmer including 2nd Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason highlighted the ruling as symbolic of an alleged pattern of ethical issues involving Bhalla. Bhalla has been accused of several other low-level ethical allegations and missteps.
Bhalla denied any wrongdoing and ultimately threatened to sue Mason for defamation. He went on to retain his seat in the November general election.
Geraghty’s ruling has been returned to the state’s Local Finance Board, which has 45 days to approve, modify, or reject it. If the board does nothing, the decision becomes final.
“Ever since I got elected, there have been certain individuals who have been trying to destroy my reputation.”—Ravi Bhalla
He added, “I’m happy the court saw this complaint for what it was essentially—a frivolous political attack with racial overtones and one that was aimed at destroying my reputation in the community.”
On Wednesday, Zimmer said she was not surprised by Bhalla’s exoneration. She called her 2013 running mate an “extremely dedicated public servant” and expressed hopes that the Local Finance Board would fairly consider all the facts and circumstances of the case in its review.
Mason declined to provide a comment for this article.
A shared office arrangement
The ethics complaint against Bhalla arose from a February 2010 City Council vote to extend a legal services contract between Condon and the city at a cost of $29,000.
At the time, Condon and Bhalla had a joint lease on a Newark Street office and shared the services of a receptionist. Bhalla is also a lawyer, but they were not in practice together.
Bhalla did ask the city’s attorney at the time, Michael Kates, whether he should vote on the matter. Kates asked if Bhalla had a personal or financial relationship with Condon that would preclude him from objective assessment. Bhalla said no, and Kates told him he did not have to abstain.
When Bhalla informed Kates subsequent to the vote that he shared a lease with Condon, Kates did not amend his recommendation.
Soon after the vote, Councilwoman Mason issued a press release accusing Bhalla of voting improperly on the contract.
Then, political activist (and former school board and housing board member) Perry Belfiore, who has criticized those aligned with Mayor Dawn Zimmer, filed a complaint against Bhalla with the state in May 2010.
In issuing its Notice of Violation against Bhalla in 2013, the state ruled that his shared lease “would appear to constitute a direct/indirect financial involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair ones objectivity or independence of justice.”
Bhalla was fined $100 but the payment was waived.
In his review, Geraghty rejected this reasoning. He called the idea that Bhalla might be swayed to vote for Condon’s contract “fanciful” and “illogical.”
Harsh words for Belfiore
Judge Geraghty made special note of the political context in which the ethics complaint against Bhalla was filed.
In his decision, Geraghty called Belfiore a “local gadfly” and “relentless political antagonist.” He noted that Belfiore once called Bhalla an “animal” at a Hoboken City Council meeting.
At the July 2 hearing for summary decision, Geraghty was even more frank, calling Belfiore a “bigoted, malicious crackpot with a personal grudge against Bhalla.”
“Every town has crackpots…and they can be vicious,” added Geraghty.
New Jersey Deputy Attorney General Laura Mastriano, who represented the Local Finance Board, did not contest Geraghty’s characterization of Belfiore, but she emphasized that the ruling of the independent board was at issue, not Belfiore’s political predilections.
For his part, Belfiore denies being a bigot. The “animal” comment occurred during a council meeting last September, in which Belfiore said to Bhalla’s council allies, “He’s your animal. Control him.” Last week, Belfiore said he had in mind the Italian colloquial phrase “respect the dog for its owner,” and that his comments came from the perception that Bhalla’s council allies weren’t exerting pressure on him to act appropriately, because they needed his vote.
Belfiore added that he wished he had used the word “monster” or “Frankenstein” instead.
Belfiore maintained that his complaint was factual, regardless of politics, and said he found it disturbing that a judge would ascribe motives to someone he has never met. He said he believes Bhalla was “skating on a fulcrum of what is and isn’t legal.”
Earlier in the week, Zimmer said it was obvious that Belfiore’s complaint was motivated by political grievances. She said she was concerned that frivolous ethics complaints could have a chilling effect on young reformers and activists seeking public service.
Bhalla has been accused of other ethical issues during his tenure on the council.
After Bhalla was hired by the law firm of Florio Perrucci Steinhardt & Fader last year, Zimmer opponents questioned whether he had been in talks with the firm when he voted to award it city contracts just a few months before he was hired.
Bhalla said he began negotiations with Florio in June 2013, the same month he began abstaining from votes related to the firm. Bhalla announced his new position in August 2013.
Once Bhalla’s employment was finalized, the city decided to cease using the firm for legal work.
In 2010, NJ.com reported that Bhalla’s then-law firm had not submitted three years’ worth of required forms to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. When asked about the forms by NJ.com reporters, Bhalla initially said he wasn’t required to submit them, then said he had no knowledge of the form. He filed the requisite documents the following day and apologized.
Some of Bhalla’s law firm’s campaign contributions to political groups associated with New Jersey politicians have been questioned after his law practice received contracts from the officials.
In July 2008, Bhalla’s firm won a $54,400 contract from the city of Newark one month after it made a $2,500 contribution to a political action committee (PAC) affiliated with Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
In 2007, Bhalla’s firm was awarded a $240,000 contract by Union City. The next year, it gave $2,350 in donations to a PAC in support of Union City Mayor Brian Stack. Bhalla’s firm subsequently received another $127,000 contract from Union City.
In the past, Bhalla responded to those stories by maintaining that none of his contributions were unethical or violated state pay-to-play laws.
“Ever since I got elected,” Bhalla said last week, “there have been certain individuals who have been trying to destroy my reputation.”
Carlo Davis may be reached at email@example.com.