ELIZABETH CITY COUNCIL REQUESTS AUDIT OF ELIZABETH BOARD OF EDUCATION BUDGET Determination of all attorney fees paid must be made

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Kelly Vence
908-820-4124
Public Information Office
 
ELIZABETH CITY COUNCIL REQUESTS AUDIT OF ELIZABETH BOARD OF EDUCATION BUDGET
Determination of all attorney fees paid must be made
 
ELIZABETH, NJ—March 20, 2015— At the March 10, 2015 meeting of the Elizabeth City Council, questions were raised regarding the amount of money being spent by the Elizabeth Board of Education on attorney fees.  The Board's budget is supported heavily by taxpayer dollars and the allocation of funds has been a topic of concern in the past due to debatable spending decisions. Therefore, in order to ascertain whether proper fiscal responsibility is being practiced, an audit of all legal services is being called for by the City Council.
 
According to the Finance and Accounting Reports featured under the Agendas of the Elizabeth Board of Education's website, $354,472.78 was attributed to legal services on the September 18, 2014 submission.  That number includes $276,269.20 paid to Schwartz Simon Edelstein & Celso, L.L.C.  Within the October 23, 2014 Report, $461,167.41 was authorized for the payment of vouchers for legal services. That number is significant on its own; however $359,901.84 is listed as the payment for Schwartz Simon Edelstein & Celso, L.L.C. The November 20, 2014 Finance and Accounting Report includes $408,411.11 in expenses for legal services; of which $296,907.48 for Schwartz Simon Edelstein & Celso, L.L.C.  The December 11, 2014 reported $83,846.69 in total legal services; however the January 6, 2015 special meeting called for authorization to pay vouchers for legal services in the amount of $634,782.06 - with $445,758.20 of this total provided to Schwartz Simon Edelstein & Celso, LLC.  Payment for these services was made via hand check.  Recorded services rendered by Schwartz Simon Edelstein & Celso, LLC over a five month period from September to the first week of January, total $1,378,836.72.
 
"Municipalities work hard to reduce costs while providing quality services to the community, growing the economy through smart investments as well as increasing opportunities with new initiatives," said Mayor J. Christian Bollwage. "The Board of Education has listed over one million dollars of public dollars being paid to a single law firm over the course of a few months.  This is outrageous spending and an audit must be conducted to reveal  how much of these funds were used to defend Board of Education Members  in lawsuits -  all  at the cost of the taxpayer."
 
Board of Education Member Mr. A. Monteiro has been convicted  of  ethics violations and was represented by Stephen Edelstein of the above mentioned law firm Schwartz, Simon, Edelstein & Celso, LLC, who were retained as Special Counsel for the Board of Education at the January 7, 2014 meeting. Within an article featured in the July 8, 2014 edition of The Star Ledger newspaper, it was detailed that the state School Ethics Commission recommended Elizabeth Board of Education member Tony Monteiro be reprimanded for unethical behavior.  The Commission's decision was based on evidence that as Board President, Mr. Monteiro voted in the affirmative for the reappointment of Mendonca and Partners LLC as the Board Auditor; although there was a clear conflict of interest presented. Mr. Monteiro was a partner with Helder Mendonca, who is the principal of the appointed firm Mendonca and Partners LLC, in a business venture known as 147 Westfield Avenue LLC, where a restaurant was operated at that same address.
 
The January 6, 2015 Board of Education meeting was held prior to the swearing in of newly-elected Board Members, which included Maria Carvalho. This was also the meeting where Mr. Monteiro submitted his resignation as a Board of Education Member and was replaced by Mr. Rafael Fajardo, who had lost his bid for re-election in November 2014.
 
"The Elizabeth Board of Education held a special meeting to conduct questionable business, including the approval of more reckless and exorbitant payments to law firms, in order to avoid potential opposition from new Board members," said Council President Patricia Perkins-Auguste. "The Elizabeth City Council and all taxpayers deserve to know exactly what was the nature of these legal services and how such costs could have been authorized."  
 
This is not the first time the Elizabeth Board of Education has dedicated large sums of taxpayer money for legal services.  Retired Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein was retained by the Elizabeth Board of Education to serve as Special Counsel and conduct an internal review of the organization; which cost $500,000 and was released on February 9, 2012. The findings of this review were detailed within a written report and discussed by Justice Stein at a press conference held outside the Law Offices of Pashman Stein in Hackensack, New Jersey. Along with his son, payments for services such as Special Counsel and this “independent review” resulted in an excess of one million dollars. At the time, the shared employer of Justice and Mr. Stein coincidentally happened to be the Elizabeth Board of Education, the subject of the abovementioned review.