Remember that Aretha Franklin song from 1985, Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Well, these days Zoom delivers City Council meetings to the virtual destination of your choice. We zoom in, we zoom out. Retired Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez zooms in judiciously about taxpayers covering legal fees of city employees under federal investigation.
Let’s look at this way: you’re a city employee, you punch someone in the nose on city time in City Hall. Do you expect taxpayers to cover your legal fees in a criminal probe?
From Judge Lopez:
The Bridgeport City Council can always be counted upon, to live down to its reputation as a pathetic rubber stamp for Mayor Ganim, and his enablers in the City Attorney’s Office.
With a few notable exceptions, City Council members performed predictably and disgracefully on September 21, when Resolution 132-19 was considered.
The Resolution sought three actions:
1. 100% reimbursement of city funds used for legal fees paid on behalf of city officials and employees;
2. Copies of invoices submitted by attorneys which have not been previously disclosed;
3. That future retainer agreements must be presented to the Contracts Committee of the City Council, before being executed by the City Attorney’s Office.
Therefore, the issue before the City Council at its September 21, zoom meeting involved the payment by City taxpayers of legal expenses incurred by Mayor Ganim, Chief of Staff Daniel Shamas, Former Personnel Director David Dunn and Former Police Chief AJ Perez. The fees charged by criminal defense attorneys were incurred during a federal investigation surrounding the 2018 written examination for Chief of Police. So far, this investigation has resulted in the arrests of Dunn and Perez.
The Resolution also sought to assert the legitimate oversight powers of the City Council by mandating that all future contracts/retainer agreements related to any FBI & US Attorney criminal investigation be presented to the Contracts Committee, by the City Attorney’s Office, prior, to the execution of any agreement.
Certainly, we can all agree that requiring the City Attorney’s Office, to present contracts/retainers to the Committee of Cognizance of the City Council, is a reasonable request, given the checks and balances requirements of our democracy.
Unfortunately, our City Council is so oblivious to its legitimate role that the topic of oversight never came up during the meeting.
In a commentary published on Sunday, September 20, on OIB, I observed that the Contracts Committee had voted to reject Resolution 132-19, the day before Dunn and Perez were arrested. I entertained the hope, in light of the arrests, that the full City Council might reverse course and protect the Bridgeport taxpayer.
Following my commentary on OIB, the Bridgeport City Attorney, in a letter dated September 21, 2020 and received at 4:30 PM immediately prior to the Council meeting, issued a preposterous attempt to justify a $600,000 insult to the Bridgeport taxpayer.
Thanks to Lennie Grimaldi and OIB, the full text of the City Attorney’s opinion is available for all of us to examine.
The City Attorney attempted to justify signed retainer agreements between his office and criminal defense lawyers. According to the unambiguous language in these retainer agreements, the City is not the client, but our City Attorney agreed, nevertheless, to pay for the representation.
The opinion, in a lawyerly parsing of words, and without a hint of irony, proclaimed “… my office has not retained criminal defense counsel for any City Official.”
Given that the retainer agreements which the Chief City Attorney signed agreed to pay attorney’s fees, his statement doesn’t pass the laugh test.
For example, in a July 24, 2019 “Dear Joe” letter addressed to Mayor Ganim, Attorney J. Bruce Maffeo writes, in the first paragraph, “This letter will confirm the terms between Kozin O’Connor and you regarding my representation of you in connection with a Grand Jury investigation by the United States Attorney’s Office.”
The letter makes clear that Mayor Ganim is the client, not the City of Bridgeport. It reads, “… my professional obligations run exclusively to you and no information disclosed in the course of my representation of you will be shown to third parties without your consent.”
Although the City of Bridgeport is not Attorney Maffeo’s client, Chief City Attorney R. Christopher Meyer agreed to pay for the representation in writing, by signing the agreement.
The letter from Attorney Kerry A. Lawrence addressed to Chief of Staff Daniel Shamas, contains similar language. Attorney Lawrence writes, “This letter explains our representation of you in connection with a criminal investigation.” He goes on to say, “We will be representing only you, and not the City of Bridgeport.”
Attorney R. Christopher Meyer signed off on this letter, as well.
The City Attorney must believe, that we, the City of Bridgeport voters and taxpayers, are as gullible and brain dead, as most of the rubber stamp members of the City Council. In effect, he is saying to these lawyers, “You represent Joe and Dan, but send me the bill. No payment is expected from your clients.”
The City Attorney then tries to justify these written agreements, based upon the need to comply with document requests for “public records.”
City employees need personal counsel to respond to a request for public records?
You can’t be serious!
In my OIB commentary, I predicted that the City Attorney might just say, “Let’s move on.”
Sure enough, in his opinion he admits that he has notified the four lawyers representing, Mayor Ganim, Daniel Shamas, David Dunn and AJ Perez, that their services at City expense have been terminated.
Translated, that means that now that these agreements are public, and the City Attorney’s Office has been caught red-handed providing personal counsel at taxpayer expense to officials and employees facing criminal exposure, we won’t do it in the future. That is, we won’t do it until next time, when we are sure that no one is looking.
In the final paragraph of this opinion, Attorney Meyer says, “the City Attorney’s Office intends to take all appropriate legal means to recoup such legal fees and expenses incurred; if, when, and as soon as it is deemed legally proper to do so.”
This statement really takes the cake.
Our City Attorney seems to be saying that he had every right to engage personal counsel for Mayor Ganim, Dan Shamas, David Dunn, and AJ Perez. However, now that the scheme has been made public, we may try to recoup the loss.
May I suggest that the “interests of the City require” that Attorney Meyer engage an aggressive collection attorney, as is done when homeowners fall behind in their WPCA payments.
The City Council had a second chance in Resolution 132-19, to rectify this raid on the public treasury. However, once again, most of its members demonstrated that loyalty to the Mayor and his City Attorney enablers takes precedence over representing the overtaxed residents of the City of Bridgeport.
It must be mentioned that some Council members stood tall and distinguished themselves during this meeting. Both of my representatives, Scott Burns and Matt McCarthy, supported the resolution which was authored and researched by Council Member Maria Pereira.
Constituents should thank them for their vote.
Councilman Mike DeFilippo deserves a special mention. Although he is an acknowledged protégé of Democratic Town Chair Mario Testa and former Mayor John Fabrizi, he was a profile in political courage. Just as I did during my OIB commentary, council member DeFilippo questioned the propriety of Mayor Ganim chairing the portion of the meeting in which Resolution 132-19 was discussed, given the fact that legal fees paid on his behalf were at issue.
After DeFilippo spoke up, Mayor Ganim relinquished the Chair.
DeFilippo’s courage and act of defiance, cost him the chairmanship of the Budget Committee, but it should earn him the appreciation and respect of taxpayers and voters.
Mayor Ganim, Dan Shamas, David Dunn and AJ Perez should all reimburse the taxpayers for monies paid pursuant to their retainer agreements. If they won’t, they should be sued, because the “interests of the City” demand it.
But given the inclinations of our City Attorney’s Office, I won’t hold my breath.