NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Leonard T. Bier might well be one of the most powerful people in New Jersey, but outside of the parking business and the legal field, he is not well-known.
Formerly an attorney for Middlesex County, one could say that Bier, age 64, is in the prime of his public-sector career, holding down four public jobs where he often gets to call the shots.
Bier has worked for the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA) for nearly three decades. In recent years, the agency has caused the city's credit rating to be downgraded, and sharply increased its rates to park at on-street meters, as well monthly and hourly parking rates for the city's downtown parking garages.
But technically, Bier "retired" from all of his public jobs in 2008, including his general legal counsel position at the NBPA, just as the state was adopting legislation to force attorneys like him out of the state's struggling pension system.
However, he quickly returned to work for the NBPA, and has since amassed a number of other powerful positions in the field.
That move allowed him to join the so-called "$100K club," by collecting an annual pension of $106,611 on top of at least four public jobs, and seven additional sources of income including lucrative consulting deals with an unknown number of public parking authorities and other government agencies.
The state's pension system is presently in a crisis, due in part to high payouts being made to certain officials like attorneys, who often behave more like contracted professional service providers, rather than traditional employees entitled to pension benefits.
The income from the pension, however, has consistently been omitted from his financial disclosure forms, in violation of the city's code of ethics.
Many other city officials who collect pensions, including Mayor James Cahill, list their PERS, PFRS, or other pension income on their forms.
Certain public officials such as Bier must disclose "each source of income, earned and unearned, which you received in excess of $2,000" for the prior year, among other financial details.
As we reported, City Council President Kevin Egan—who serves as the Council's liason to the NBPA—recently became the first official to be fined in city history for an ethics violation after he repeatedly failed to disclose a rental property that he owned.
The revelation means that Bier could be next if someone were to file an ethics complaint against him.
Despite being "retired," Bier is still involved in many New Jersey parking agencies, and has a thriving consulting firm based in New Brunswick.
His law office on Livingston Avenue is also his residence, and serves as the headquarters to several organizations including his private consulting company, Bier Associates, the NJ Parking Institute (NJPI), and Downtown New Jersey.
The property has an assessed value of $226,100, according to property records.
According to Bier's finanical disclosure forms, he also has two "boat slips" on Sea Spray Lane in Neptune, New Jersey.
In addition to being the powerful, longtime attorney for the NBPA, a position that pays $48,000 each year, he also plays the same role for the Trenton Parking Authority (TPA).
In addition, Bier Associates was hired to produce a 45-page "Parking System Review" report for the TPA in 2013.
The NBPA and the TPA are just two of the public parking authorities to hire the firm in the past decade, including agencies in Camden, Metuchen, Newark, North Bergen, Perth Amboy, Hackensack and Miami, Florida.
But that's not all: Bier is also presently serving as the Executive Director of the Rahway Parking Authority, a position he has held since 2010. In 2014, he also assumed the exact same job at the Rahway Redevelopment Authority, adding another $70,000 to his annual income.
The ethics of holding both Executive Director positions simultaneously were questionable enough that Bier requested an opinion from a City Attorney who works for the politically-connected Weiner Lesniak law firm.
A conflict of interest is defined as "a situation in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation of the individual or organization."
Attorney Brian Hak's opinion was released in May 2015, more than six months after Bier began working the jobs simultaneously. Hak found there was no conflict of interest in holding the two jobs, and gave Bier the green light to continue as the Executive Director at both agencies.
But Bier declined to state which other parking authorities he works for currently during a February 24 NBPA board meeting, and then again during a brief phone interview with New Brunswick Today.
"No, it's really not relevant to the discussion here," said Bier at the public meeting. "You can do your research, which I'm sure you have, and you can report accordingly. The questions that you ask at this meeting are relevant to my position here at the parking authority of New Brunswick."
When we reached Bier at his private office, he still opted not to disclose the other authorities that he has business relationships with, specifically because New Brunswick Today does not "seem to take a positive spin."
"I don't talk to the press in general," said Bier, in between criticisms of New Brunswick Today, the state's only bilingual community newspaper.
"I read what you write, and what you seem to do is write disparaging articles," said Bier. "I choose really not to engage."
"Unfortunately, I think you're a very good journalist," Bier conceded. "I think you have great potential, but I read your work and you don't seem to take a positive spin on anything the city does as a government."
He also refused to give an email address where he could be reached.
"I don't have any obligation to respond to you or your emails…. It's the kind of thing where I have to believe that your interest is genuinely neutral."
Bier, the so-called "parking king," was one of more than 170 individuals that wrote to a federal judge seeking leniency for former Mayor and State Senate President John Lynch Jr., who was about to be sentenced after Lynch pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from a developer in exchange for securing approvals by other government officials.
Lynch was convicted on two felony charges and sentenced to a term in federal prison. He was released in 2009.
The former New Brunswick Mayor was once, and some argue still is, the kingpin of Middlesex County politics.
Bier has been with the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA) since 1987, during Lynch's tenure as Mayor.
Two years later, he was named Acting Director of the NBPA, according to his resume. He held the top position in 1990 and 1991, along with his regular title of general legal counsel.
For at least three decades, he has been based out of the Hub City, holding multiple public positions as he became one of the country's leading experts on parking policy and the construction of structure parking garages.
While the local government attempts to project a progressive, "transit-oriented" development agenda, Bier often finds himself defending the car-centric status quo in New Brunswick, a city that is home to by far the most public parking decks in the state.
"There's always some risk associated with an investment," Bier was quoted regarding a matter in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. "But I don't think that 'Star Trek' teleportation is going to occur very soon. I don't think that we're going to get George Jetson cars very soon."
"At the end of the day, you've got to drive somewhere."
With nine structure parking facilities currently open to the public, 1,000 on-street parking meters, several surface lots, and an aggressive ticketing program, the NBPA is the state's largest Parking Authority by a wide margin.
Over the years, the agency has also become one of the city's biggest commercial landlords, presently leasing out several floors of office space to Rutgers University, as well as a supermarket and fitness center.
The agency is presently looking for ways to team up with developers, including New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO) to demolish the now-vacant Ferren Mall project, along with additional properties along Paterson Street.
The goal is to replace the contaminated site that takes up two city blocks with as many as four skyscrapers, and underground parking.
The NBPA had nearly a quarter-billion dollars in outstanding debt as of summer 2014, all of it guaranteed by the city's taxpayers.
That number has increased to about $260 million, according to an attorney specializing in government bonds, including $170 million in debt that will be re-financed if approved by the NJ Local Finance Board's March 9 meeting.
Meanwhile, in addition to the NBPA job, the Trenton job, the two Rahway jobs, Bier also disclosed that he has an ownership stake, and profits from, seven different entities, including five companies that share his home address:
- Leonard T Bier, Attorney at Law
- Bier Associates
- Indian Path Partnership, LLC
- Livingston Partners, LP
- Urban Dreams Productions, LLC
The other two companies, "Slater Equity Ptrs Liquidating Fund" and "Slater Capital Asset Management" list addresses on the 33rd floor of 825 3rd Avenue in New York City, a building owned by the Durst Organization.
Bier also listed two different Parking Institutes, the NJPI and another in Virginia, on the disclosure form under the category for "fees and honorariums having an aggregate amount exceeding $250 received from any single source for personal appearances, speeches, or writing."
Bier is widely considered one of the top parking experts in the country. He graduated from New Brunswick's campus of Rutgers University in 1973 with a degree in political science, and attended law school at Rutgers-Newark until 1977.
Since 1999, Mr. Bier has been the executive director of the NJPI. He has been their general legal counsel since 1978.
NBPA Executive Director Mitch Karon is listed as the 1st Vice President and Treasurer of the NJPI.
The Institute's website still lists among its "Silver Sponsors" Birdsall Services Group, a now-defunct company whose top officials have been indicted and pleaded guilty to evading pay-to-play laws by using employees to make illegal political donations.
Bier is licensed to practice law in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., as well as federal courts in New Jersey and New York, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Mr. Bier is a Certified Administrator of Public Parking (CAPP), awarded jointly by the International Parking Institute and the University of Vigrinia," reads the About Us page on the Rahway Redevelopment Agency website. "Mr. Bier's CAPP designation is in good standing."
As the NBPA's attorney and a parking consultant, in addition to his other jobs with entities that are in the same business, Bier is in a unique position of power.
He has used that power to organize a purchasing co-op between the authorities where he works, raising further ethical concerns about the potential for self-dealing, which is defined as "taking advantage of his position in a transaction and acting for his own interests" rather than the authorities he works for.
According to a memo to the Mayor and Council of Summit Township, as of December, the fledgling operation already has seven members including a majority of agencies that currently have direct business relationships with either Bier, his company, or both.
"At a recent seminar hosted by the New Brunswick Parking Authority, attendees were informed there is now a NJ Cooperative Pricing System with memberships of the following towns: New Brunswick, Trenton, Hackensack, Elizabeth, Rahway, Morristown," reads the memo, authored by that Summit Parking Services Manager Rita McNany.
On January 28, Bier chaired the annual re-organization meeting of the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA) Board of Commissioners, and participated in the decision to pass a bunch of resolutions including one that would hire him, and another that hired his company.
New Brunswick Today captured the meeting on video, as the NBPA does not make recordings of its board meetings.
The board voted to re-appoint its existing officers, including Chairman Kevin McTernan, an executive at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH), which just so happens to be the authority's biggest customer.
But McTernan did not immediately take over the meeting, leaving Bier to chair the remainder of the reorganization matters, including his own contracts.
"The next resolution is the appointment of general legal counsel, which was also done by a fair and open [Request for Quotations (RFQ)], and that is Leonard Bier," said Bier.
What was not said was that Bier was the only attorney to apply for the position.
A minute later, Bier listed the three parking consultants that the NBPA would be hiring.
"Next is our appointments of parking consultants, and we've appointed three: Tim Haahs & Associates, Level G, and Bier Associates," Bier said, adding that it was "also done by a fair and open RFQ."
Once again, all parties that submitted bids were being hired. No mention was made of Bier's involvement in the company that bears his name.
"I'm sure you've reported that in the past that in fact Mr. Bier is of Bier Associates," said NBPA board member Louis Garlatti, dismissing the transparency concern when New Brunswick Today brought it up the following month.
Garlatti's wife is longtime City Council member Elizabeth "Betsy" Garlatti. The couple owns a vacation home located just around the corner from Bier's boat slips in Neptune Township.
According to Karon, Bier's firm is "contracted as parking consultants on an as needed basis per project."
"It can either be fee based or lump sum depending on the scope of the project."
The resolution hiring Bier and the resolution hiring Bier Associates were ultimately combined with a batch of others into a "consent agenda" at Bier's suggestion.
Bier then opened the floor to the commissioners, but not the public, before calling for a vote. The vote was 5-0 in favor, and the board adjourned the re-organization meeting without hearing from the public.
Seconds later, the "regular" meeting was underway with McTernan as the Chair.
McTernan was the first to defend the questionable practice after it was questioned at the February meeting. Like Garlatti, he said that it was traditionally how things have been done at the agency's board.
"Well, our practice has been that the re-organization meeting is chaired by counsel," began McTernan. "Since the slate of officers, members of the board is being appointed, it would be a conflict of interest if I decided to chair the meeting and said 'let's vote for me again.'"
But the procedure marks a deviation from how other city government bodies handle re-organization matters, including the City Council of New Brunswick.
The City Council does not treat re-organization matters as a separate meeting from its regular meeting, though those items are usually grouped together and voted on separately.
But, as soon as a Chairperson is selected by their Council colleagues, the temporary chairperson stops running the meeting.
Just six days after the NBPA meeting, Mayor Cahill confirmed that what the Parking Authority board did was not the usual way of re-organizing when Cahill himself presided over the "organization" portion of the first-ever meeting of a new "Parks and Gardens Commission."
"Usually, the temporary chair serves only to recieve the nomination for a new permanent chair and then the permanent chair normally takes over," Cahill said while explaining the process of electing the brand-new commission's members.
When New Brunswick Today challenged the NBPA Board on the questionable procedure used, Garlatti jumped in to defend it as "proper."
"Mr. Kratovil, we'll defer to Robert's Rules," said Garlatti "Thank you. We appreciate your advice. We do deem it proper that Mr. Bier did run the meeting."
"We deem it appropriate because it's been our practice to do that over the years that I've been here," said Garlatti.
Garlatti also tried to turn things around on this reporter, questioning why the author of this article did not disclose his involvement in the New Brunswick Today newspaper during the public questioning.
"You introduce yourself as a resident of New Brunswick. You also are a reporter as I understand it and publish a blog," Garlatti said. "Don't you think it's important for transparency purposes to identify yourself as such when you publicly introduce yourself at these meetings?"
"I'll take that under advisement," responded this reporter.
"I think you ought to introduce yourself that way as a member of the public as well as that capacity since it appears that your questions are oriented towards that publication rather than your interest as a public member," Garlatti stated.
Among the other resolutions approved during the re-organization was one appointing the powerful Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer firm as its labor counsel and special bond counsel, a position it has held for decades.
The firm stands to make $75,000 on the proposed re-financing of the NBPA's debt.