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Freeholders Re-Appoint Thomas Kelso to Public Job With $178,000 Annual Salary, No Set Hours

County Counsel is The Official Attorney of Middlesex County, Term Lasts Three Years
Thomas Kelso is representing the county in negotiations with former client Pennrose Properties. Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The Middlesex County Freeholders were not aware of the salary of their top attorney Thomas Kelso, but the board was still ready to grant him another three years as the county government's top attorney  at their December 4 meeting.

Kelso, a close political ally of former New Brunswick Mayor John Lynch Jr., was re-appointed to another three-year term in the powerful position of "County Counsel."

At first, no one could say what the salary was for the high-profile job, which comes with health and pension benefits.  There are no set hours for the job, leaving Kelso free to balance his time between public and private work, and political activity.

"Does anybody know the salary? Alright, we'll have to get it back to you," said Ronald Rios, the Freeholder Director, apparently not interested in knowing the salary before casting his vote for three more years of Kelso.

Kelso chimed in, telling his supposed bosses that his salary is somewhere in the range of $178,000-$179,000 per year.

With no chief executive, the county government is influenced greatly by Kelso, a key political figure in the county.

As we reported, Kelso personally represents most of the city's largest developers, including Boraie Development, New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), Wick Enterprises, and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.

Tonight, he will be appearing before the New Brunswick Planning Board representing Construction Management Associates, the controversial developer behind plans for a 52-unit apartment building on Mine Street.

The hearing will take place in the same room where Kelso often guides the Freeholders through their meetings at the county building, located at 75 Bayard Street.

According to Director Rios, the hours of Kelso's position "vary."  He did not directly address Kelso's other work.

"They vary. They're all our meetings and they vary on an as needed basis throughout the day, throughout the week," said Rios, who was quick to defend Kelso.

"He has served us honorably. He has always given us a professional unbiased opinion," said Rios.  "Every member of this board has never felt uncomfortable with his positions or his recommendation or his legal advice or his research that he has done."

But Kelso also serves as the Executive Director of the New Brunswick Democratic Organization, raising funds and spending them to help keep Mayor James Cahill in power for a record six terms.  Cahill faced no opponent in this year's election.

Kelso's numerous conflicts run deep, and have the potential to affect his role as the county's top attorney.

"County Counsel has the power, duty and responsibility of managing all legal matters for the County and serves as legal advisor to all Departments of the County, with the exception of the Planning Board," reads the county's website.

The Planning Board exception conveniently allows Kelso to continue representing the big developers, but his private and public roles still come into conflict frequently.

For example, representing some of the city's biggest landlords can come into conflict with Kelso's role as chief advisor to the county Department of Health, which is charged with enforcing laws related to bedbugs and other landlord-tenant issues.

Further, Kelso's private website advertises to potential clients that Kelso is the "chief advisor to the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office" (MCPO).

On several occasions, the county prosecutor's office has declined to bring charges against politically-connected members of the Cahill administration, such as Robert Rawls and Brad Berdel, or let them off easy, such in the cases of Richard Rowe and Michael Lapidus.  

The MCPO never opened a file on Mayor's Aide Kevin Jones, despite a finding of probable cause in a case where a citizen alleged voter fraud, robbery by force, and assault.

Jones is a member of the Planning Board and Housing Authority Board in New Brunswick, both of which frequently vote to approve major development projects that are represented by Kelso.

In 2012, Kelso was caught up in a pay-to-play scandal after county Democrats sought his advice on a suspicious Democrat-controlled fundraising organization called "Women For Good Government."

"It is likely law enforcement is involved," said Kelso at the time, but curiously, nothing came of the investigation.

The following year, New Brunswick Today caught Kelso and other Lynch allies of botching the city's first-ever school board election, giving an unfair advantage to candidates supported by Mayor Cahill.  News 12's Walt Kane followed up with an investigation of his own.

Governor Chris Christie agreed to have the Attorney General's office investigate, but again, nothing came of the investigation. 

Kelso was also involved in the infamous "Machiavelli" investigation brought by then-US Attorney Chris Christie, related to negotiations between Middlesex County and a family selling the development rights to their farm in Piscataway.

The allegations were that Democratic officials, namely fundraiser David D'amiano, tried to extort the family to give political donations, with the promise of a bigger payout for their land after the election.

An indictment was unsealed in 2004, and included Governor James McGreevey and Kelso as unnamed co-conspirators.

According to an article in the Star-Ledger from that time, multiple Freeholders said they did not recall authorizing Kelso to negotiate with the family:

Kelso said yesterday it was made clear during meetings with Halper that only the freeholders could authorize any additional funding from the county.

"No offer to purchase the Halper property was ever made by county representatives in these meetings. Unfortunately, the narrative contained in Mr. D'Amiano's indictment does not clearly reflect these facts," Kelso's statement said.

Four freeholders contacted yesterday said they do not recall the seven-member freeholder board ever giving Kelso or DeAngelo the authority to negotiate with Halper.

Kelso said Crabiel knew about the meetings.

"As county representatives and with the knowledge of the freeholder director, we had a responsibility to meet and explore the potential for preserving this property as open space," his statement said.

How has he gotten away with it all?  It probably doesn't hurt that two of the four most recent county prosecutors were former law partners of his.

In 2002, Bruce Kaplan gave up his partnership in the firm, then called Kelso & Kaplan, to become the Middlesex County Prosecutor.  Kelso became the County Counsel shortly thereafter, but never stopped running his private business on the side because he was not required to.

On November 6, Kelso's conflicts were on display, but only after the Freeholders voted to go into closed session.

Kelso was not able to participate in the private discussion with the Freeholders due to a conflict of interest regarding one of his developer clients, but in another matter involving a former client, he declined to step aside.

"I know what you're getting at. I was not in closed session with respect to the Milltown... because of a conflict of interest with Boraie Development Corporation, I recused myself," Kelso offerred after this reporter asked about the closed session.

But Kelso admitted that he participated in a discussion where the Freeholders eventually opted to select a Philadelphia-based company to redevelop the Roosevelt Care Center into senior citizen housing.

"There was a discussion that involved the Pennrose bid award... and I was present for that discussion. I do not represent Pennrose Properties."

Kelso represented them as recently as 2009, but he also represented the developer of a project in 2012 that teamed with Pennrose.

After the closed session discussion, the Freeholders decided not only to select Pennrose as the developer, but also to allocate $8 million in public funding to the project.

The ordinance was quickly scheduled for a vote, and passed unanimously by the Freeholders.

However, New Brunswick Today caught an error in the title of the ordinance, pressuring the county to schedule another hearing on the $8 million expenditure.

That hearing and vote has been scheduled for December 18 at 7pm in the Middlesex County Administration Building, 75 Bayard Street.