NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A law firm that has made representing public housing authorities into a cottage industry charged the New Brunswick Housing Authority (NBHA) over $98,000 during the last fiscal year, vastly exceeding the amount budgeted by the agency.
Yet, for a second straight year, the NBHA's Board of Commissioners approved a budget on November 15 that included just $18,000 for legal expenses, costs that will also include bills from at least one other law firm.
As it turns out, the NBHA's entire legal budget had already been exceeded by the amount Manfredi & Pellechio had billed the public agency just over four months into their fiscal year, which started on July 1, 2017 without a final approved budget in place.
That firm, which also represents eight other housing authorities in New Jersey, refuses to identify what the fees were for, going out of their way to completely redact that information from invoices provided in response to multiple Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests.
"I've been practicing public housing law since 1992," said the firm's namesake Joseph Manfredi. "I represent a number of clients as does my firm because they know we do the best work… and we are the best qualified."
Since 2015, the Hoboken-based law firm has racked up at least $179,880.50 in legal fees representing the NBHA, along with $1,373.35 in disbursement costs that were passed along to the authority.
But the NBHA Board of Commissioners, whose mission is to provide affordable housing to the neediest New Brunswickers, did not open the floor to questions from the public before adopting the misleading budget on November 15, and refused to answer questions about the legal fees during the meeting.
Afterwards, one of the board members threatened this reporter with physical violence after we asked him how much had been spent on legal fees.
"Don't even ask me that question… The meeting is over so I'll knock you out," said Yirgu Wolde, who got in this reporter's face and made a fist.
Wolde, a state employee who makes a six-figure public salary, is now facing a criminal charge for the threat, as documented by the Home News Tribune's Nick Muscavage.
After cancelling a subsequent public meeting scheduled in December, the NBHA Board once again would not answer questions about the amount of their legal fees at their January 24 meeting.
"We want to answer the questions, but send them in writing," said NBHA Chairman Dale Caldwell, who also leads the city's Board of Education and the NJ Educational Services Commission Board.
After the meeting, Caldwell kept his head down and remained silent when we asked him how much was spent on legal fees this year.
For his part, Manfredi dodged our questions when we asked for a "ballpark figure" of how much he had billed the NBHA.
"It's all public record… It's in the agency's budget," Manfredi said, before outlining that he was hired in a process "based on the most competitive price and experience."
"Everything is done with full transparency in public housing and is reviewed by the federal government," said Manfredi.
Indeed, the federal government's Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reviewed the most recent contract given to Manfredi's firm and found a big problem with how it was awarded.
According to a HUD Office of Inspector General (OIG) report issued in September, the deal was one of nine contracts handed out by the NBHA Board of Commissioners in violation of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and HUD's Handbook:
The Authority did not prepare independent cost estimates before receiving bids and cost or price analyses before awarding nine contracts for general legal, fee accounting, management consulting, and auditing services. Regulations at 24 CFR 85.36(f), 2 CFR 200.323(a), and HUD Handbook 7460.8, REV-2, sections 3.2 and 10.3, required the Authority to perform independent cost estimates and perform a cost or price analysis for every procurement to determine whether the price was reasonable…
The only documentation in the Authority’s procurement files related to establishing price reasonableness was internal emails saying that Authority officials had discussed the prices from prior contracts with the same vendors it was selecting. For example, the Authority’s legal services had been contracted to the same firm since 2007, and it only compared the firm’s prices for the annual contracts against its prior-year prices. This condition occurred because the Authority did not fully understand HUD requirements for cost estimates and cost analyses. As a result, HUD and the Authority did not have assurance that $217,403 in capital funds and operating funds spent for professional services was reasonable.
While defending himself and dodging specific questions in the aftermath of the January meeting, Manfredi went on to threaten to take legal action against anyone who portrays him as unethical.
"I will take legal action against anyone that questions my integrity or my ethics as an attorney," said Manfredi.
The next morning, in an effort to comply with Caldwell's request for written questions, New Brunswick Today submitted 23 questions to the NBHA's Executive Director, John Clarke. So far, no response has been provided more than four weeks later.
But it's no surprise that information and records are hard to come by at the NBHA, which has repeatedly violated NJ's OPRA law, violations that were previously the subject of a successful lawsuit against the agency filed by this reporter in 2016.
The 2017-18 budget, for example, was not posted on the agency's website until late December. New Brunswick Today had to fight for a paper copy of the budget during three successive visits to the NBHA headquarters, despite OPRA stating that budgets are "immediate access" documents that supposed to be available on demand.
The response to our December 18 OPRA request that yielded the most recent set of NBHA legal bills is still not fulfilled. Bills are also considered to be "immediate access" documents under the law.
On February 22, the NBHA requested an additional 30 days to provide copies of legal bills from the agency's other group of lawyers at the powerful Wilentz Goldman & Spitzer firm, and any other legal bills the agency has racked up over the past three years.
Requests for legal bills are also pending with each of the other authorities that have hired the firm: Hoboken, Franklin, Middletown, Madison, Guttenberg, Harrison, Morristown, and Linden.
New Brunswick Today is also exploring the possibility of filing a legal challenge to the redactions made to Manfredi & Pellechio's bills, which have effectively kept secret the nature of the work that they have been paid for.