In depositions taken last month as part of the 2013 suit, two city employees said they felt intimidated into choosing a bid from particular energy consultant. They also said that a voicemail recording inadvertently captured two other key members of the Fulop administration discussing the choice.
The main issue that has emerged as a political story is unrelated to the cause of the initial lawsuit, in which the former employee alleged a hostile work environment. But administration opponents seem to think these depositions reflect how city business may have been done behind the scenes at that time, when choosing vendors.
Depositions given last month by Dominick Pandolfo, an employee of Jersey City, and Robert Kakoleski, business administrator, said that a voicemail left on Kakoleski’s phone by Mayor Steve Fulop’s then chief of staff several years ago accidentally captured, in the background, two close aides to Fulop discussing possibly influencing the hiring of a particular consultant.
Late last week, Civic JC, a community activist group with ties to Fulop’s challenger for re-election, former Jersey City Corporation Counsel Bill Matsikoudis, called on Mayor Fulop to release the tape. The group’s director, Esther Wintner, is a candidate for council on the Matsikoudis slate.
The recording was apparently made in February, 2014 after the mayor’s then chief of staff Muhummad Akil had left the message for Kakoleski but failed to hang up his telephone.
The motion filed by attorney Gregory B. Noble seeks to force Jersey City to release the voicemail. Noble’s law firm represents the plaintiff in the hostile environment lawsuit whose prime target is city director Anthony Cruz, who figures into the depositions of Kakoleski and Pandolfo.
“I was concerned that it could impact my employment.” – Robert Kakoleski
Pandolfo is a supervising administrative analyst who works in the business administrator’s office on various projects. He was a member of a committee set up to select an energy consultant.
At the time, the mayor was supposed to take the recommendation to the City Council for a vote on the energy contract. Pandolfo testified in depositions that he felt that staffers close to the mayor had twice tried to influence him into selecting a particular vendor.
Kakoleski also testified that conversations with a top Fulop aide about the vendor made him fear for his job.
In these recent depositions, Pandolfo and Kakoleski testified that Akil had left the message for Kakoleski, and in the background could be heard a conversation between Akil and Shawn Thomas-Sullivan, an employee of the city as well as the chairman for the Jersey City Democratic Party.
At one point, Pandolfo alleged – according to transcripts of the depositions obtained by the press -- Cruz visited his office and indicated a preference for one of the four vendors.
“This is who you want. This is who the administration wants,” Pandolfo quoted Cruz as saying.
After Cruz’s visit, Kakoleski said he received the voice message from Akil. Both he and Pandolfo, who obtained a copy at the time, described hearing a background conversation between Akil and Thomas, claiming that Kakoleski had screwed up the deal.
“I guess he failed to hang his phone up and the conversation was then recorded,” Kakoleski says in the deposition. “It sounded like he was having a conversation with Mr. Thomas and the discussion included Mr. Thomas telling Mr. Akil of his suggestion to Mr. Pandolfo about the energy aggregation consultant. The message was recorded for several minutes.”
Kakoleski at the time alerted the Law Department, although he did not forward them the message.
“Mr. Akil reached out to me several hours later,” Kakoleski said. “He expressed some misunderstanding and continued to support me within the administration and said it was nothing for me to be concerned about.”
But Kakoleski was concerned. He was at that time serving as “acting business administrator,” and testified that he feared the conversation implied he might not be appointed as business administrator.
Pondolfo said he also met with the mayor and informed the mayor that he had spoken to an attorney
“He [Fulop] asked me why I had gone to an attorney,” Pondolfo said. “I told him to protect myself, protect the city and the process, and [the mayor] assured me the bids would be thrown out and the process would be started anew.”
But it was Kakoleski who canceled the committee, saying that he believed the procurement process had been violated by undue influence to select a vendor.
Last week, the mayor’s office issued a statement on the matter.
“Any time there is a concern, we take it seriously, as we did in 2014 when this issue was first brought forward,” said city spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill. “The bid was cancelled and reported to authorities, as we have a zero tolerance policy as it relates to any potential violations of ethics or laws. While the city can’t comment on pending litigation or investigations, I think the public can see that this is the political funny season.”
She claimed the information was leaked by the former chief of staff, Akil. She said, “It is no coincidence that the former mayor’s chief of staff is leaking unsubstantiated depositions from 2014 to the public six weeks before an election.”
Potential political implications for the election
Fulop is opposed by former Jersey City Corporation Counsel Bill Matsikoudis, and the revelations of alleged bid influencing could become a central theme in the campaign.
Fulop opponents have been sharply critical of the administration over the last four years, claiming that Fulop – who had come onto the local scene as a reformer – conducted business behind closed doors in the type of manner he had opposed when he was a councilman.
Many of the independent candidates and those associated with Matsikoudis have often used this “new boss, same as the old boss” theme in their attacks on Fulop.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.