Hoboken Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla, who is running for reelection on Nov. 5 on a ticket with Mayor Dawn Zimmer, defended himself last week against questions from Zimmer’s opponents over whether he had a conflict of interest when he voted last spring and summer on contracts between the city and a city vendor and politically active law firm that he subsequently joined as a partner.
In a flurry of controversy that erupted just weeks before voters will choose between Bhalla and nine other council candidates for the city’s three at-large council seats, 2nd Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason demanded that Bhalla reveal the details that led to his joining Florio Perrucci Steinhardt & Fader on Aug. 1, in order to determine whether he was in negotiations with them when he voted on their city contracts.
On Thursday, Bhalla told The Reporter that he began negotiations with the firm in mid-June, just before a June 19 City Council meeting when he began abstaining from all votes related to Florio Perrucci’s work for the city. The city clerk’s office confirmed the abstentions last week. (The minutes from several council meetings throughout the summer have yet to be approved by the deadlocked council.)
“It’s election season.” – Ravi Bhalla
An internal memo from Council President Peter Cunningham to members of the council recently noted that members of the firm, Bhalla, and the city’s attorney had met once his employment was finalized and decided that the city would cease any legal work in which the firm was engaged.
Mason had claimed that an opinion issued by the Appellate Division on Sept. 6 on a case in which Florio Perrucci had represented the city was proof of Bhalla’s alleged impropriety, but Cunningham disagreed, arguing that the firm had submitted its work on the matter to the court last January, before Bhalla’s hiring.
Still, legal sources said last week that Florio Perrucci should have removed its name from the filed brief.
Back and forth
In recent weeks, Mason has sent out multiple emails to supporters blasting Bhalla for not being forthcoming about the details of the negotiations. In an interview, she said that she originally heard about the issue of Bhalla’s employment in early August.
“When there’s someone on the council that takes a job with one of our vendors, that raises a red flag, especially when it’s a partnership at a law firm,” she said. “Becoming a partner is not a process that you go in for an interview and get hired right away. When you see it take place in a time frame that’s that shortened, it demands questions.”
Florio Perrucci, which is based in Rochelle Park, garnered $66,000 in city contracts in 2012. According to the city clerk, in the first six months of 2013, Bhalla voted five times to award the firm around $42,000 in contracts. Records show that he abstained on claims of $14.80 on June 19 and $3,834.72 on July 10. After announcing his employment on Twitter and LinkedIn on Aug. 1, Bhalla abstained on an Aug. 7 vote for $51.48.
When asked whether she thought mid-June, prior to his abstentions, was a reasonable answer to her questions about the negotiations, Mason simply said that he should have been more forthcoming sooner.
“He should have made it known from the very beginning,” she said. “There’s an obligation to tell people why you’re abstaining. The council had a right to know.”
In response, Bhalla said that Mason, who supports 4th Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti in the mayoral race against Zimmer, “was interested only in manufacturing a contrived, politically-motivated smear” ahead of next Tuesday’s election.
“It’s election season,” he said. “Our opponents have little to no material with which to critique this administration. What is sad is that many of these attacks are knowingly false and defamatory. People are tired of politics.”
Mason’s accusations against Bhalla began two weeks ago, when Cunningham refused to place a resolution condemning Bhalla submitted by Mason and 1st Ward Councilwoman Theresa Castellano on the agenda for the Oct. 16 council meeting due to what Cunningham said was defamatory and unproven content.
In addition to “expressing deep concern” over Bhalla’s employment, the resolution also demanded Zimmer’s endorsement of it, and that it be delivered upon passage to the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics and the state Department of Community Affairs.
“The public has an absolute right to know all of the circumstances as to how a councilman suddenly became partners with a major city vendor,” said Mason at the time in a statement. “The people of Hoboken have made it loud and clear that they are tired of politicians in City Hall using their offices for their own benefit, rather than the benefit of the community.”
But Cunningham, a Zimmer ally like Bhalla, lashed out at Mason and Castellano’s accusations. Cunningham cited the need to clarify several factual errors as his reason for not placing the resolution on Thursday night’s agenda.
“Unfortunately, neither [Mason nor Castellano] appeared to have made the necessary inquiries to determine the facts involved,” he wrote. “As a result, their resolution is replete with factual errors and misrepresentations.”
But Mason argued that the charges are topical, noting that Bhalla’s ethics have been questioned in the past. In fact, Bhalla’s law firm received a $240,000 contract from the city of Union City in 2007. The next year, in 2008, Bhalla’s firm donated $2,450 to Union City First, a group supporting that city’s mayor, Brian Stack. A few months after that, the firm received a contract from Union City worth $127,000.
And in 2010, NJ.com made inquiries as to why three years worth of Bhalla’s campaign finance reports had not been filed with the state. Bhalla said that he didn’t know at the time that filing the reports was required, and filed them the next day.
Election season special?
In email statements last week, Bhalla said multiple times that he was not forthcoming with the information on his negotiations because Mason had never asked him directly, but chose rather to conduct the business in public as a political stunt.
Pressed repeatedly on whether she had ever asked him directly, Mason diverted the question.
“I represent the people of Hoboken. Asking people things behind closed doors is not my job,” she said. “They don’t respond to anyone but themselves. Why didn’t he tell us? It’s not my responsibility to ask him.”
She also decried his claims that her accusations were politically-motivated, saying that Bhalla specifically waited until two weeks before the election to answer the questions so that he could portray her accusations as such.
“These things have been going on before this election season. The complaints and violations have been ongoing,” she said. “Why didn’t he tell people when it happened? Instead he waited until election time so that he could say that I’m making it an election issue. The public has a right to know all of this.”
Zimmer, who for her part has been outspoken in her support of Bhalla, said that she thought he had the utmost integrity and thought someone should look more closely at Mason’s ethics.
Mason responded, “Someone is welcome to look into what I do.” She noted that she often abstains from council votes if she feels there is the slightest chance of a conflict.
“I recuse myself when I don’t even have to, but I do it so nothing looks bad,” she said. “It’s not always about what’s legal. [Council members] are better than that. We’re held to a higher standard.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org