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Comptroller Uncovers More Wasted Tax Dollars [AUDIO]

New Jersey Comptroller Matt Boxer and his team of investigators has discovered more examples of local governments wasting your tax dollars.

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A new Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) report reveals repeated waste of taxpayer dollars on excessive or improper payments for legal services, including one town that paid a salary for an attorney with no job duties at all.

The review highlights a series of deficiencies in the local governments’ oversight of the lawyers they hire. For example, OSC found that two of the local governments paid their legal counsel at hourly attorney rates for routine clerical and administrative work that should have been free of charge under the attorney’s contract.

The report focused on legal services provided to North Bergen Township, West New York, Medford Township, the Freehold Regional High School District and the Plainfield Public Schools. The review includes an extensive checklist of best practices for local governments to follow when engaging and managing legal counsel.

The checklist, which was sent yesterday to every municipality and school district in the state, was developed after research of prevailing legal billing practices and review of a wide variety of published authorities.

“Public officials need to scrutinize their legal bills as if they were paying for them out of their own pocket, otherwise taxpayers are going to get ripped off,” says Boxer.

“What we found were repeated failures to review legal bills and manage legal contracts in a way that looks out for taxpayers.”

In North Bergen, OSC found a salaried attorney with a no-work job. Township officials couldn’t provide any information on the job responsibilities of the lawyer who was being paid an $18,800 salary plus health benefits and participation in the state pension system. When first questioned, township officials said they were unsure if the attorney in question served as the town’s Alcohol Beverage Control Board attorney or as its Tenant Advocate.

After requests for additional information, the attorney in question, who had been employed by the township for years, resigned from his position.

A spokesman for the town government, confirms that the lawyer in question has resigned and says a county investigation found no criminal wrongdoing.

The matter has been referred to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice to determine whether any criminal violations have been committed.

The review of legal services provided to North Bergen also found that the Township Attorney received a salary of $207,870 plus an additional $16,469 for unused vacation time in 2011, the year OSC reviewed.

According to information reported to the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, that Township Attorney was the highest paid full-time municipal attorney in the state. North Bergen paid the attorney substantially more – between 35 percent and 124 percent more – than the four largest New Jersey municipalities (Newark, Jersey City, Paterson and Elizabeth) pay their highest ranking staff counsel.

Findings at the other local governments reviewed include:

  • West New York paid one law firm at the attorney rate of $150 per hour for administrative work performed by a secretary, including tasks such as “taking messages” and photocopying documents, even though its contract with the firm specified that the firm was not entitled to payment for “supportive services” such as “secretarial help.” In multiple months, the town also paid the law firm more than it was billed. As a result of OSC’s findings, the firm has offered to provide a refund.
  • 30 different attorneys from the same law firm, out of a total of 54 attorneys employed there, billed Freehold for legal services in 2011, representing more than half of the attorneys employed at the firm that year.
  • Plainfield’s school board attorney improperly billed the school district thousands of dollars for routine administrative work that the firm admitted should not have been billed, as well as for services such as attendance at school board meetings that should have been covered under the firm’s pre-set retainer payment. Plainfield’s business administrator told OSC that he had only “perused” the monthly billing invoices for obvious errors. In response to OSC’s inquiries, the firm has offered to reimburse Plainfield for the improper billings.
  • Even though Plainfield and its law firm had agreed in writing that a series of services such as telephone conferences with school administrators would be included in the pre-set retainer payment to the firm, the district ultimately agreed to permit the firm to submit additional hourly bills for those services, resulting in unnecessary legal fees.
  • Plainfield also failed to comply with additional state regulations designed to limit legal expenses, which Plainfield is subject to because its legal costs greatly exceed the statewide average. For example, it failed to limit the number of staff members authorized to request legal advice and failed to record its contacts with outside counsel. OSC has referred this issue to the Department of Education for further review.

Several of the local governments acknowledge that they had not been conducting a substantive review of the legal bills they received and paid.

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