Updated 2:50 p.m. May 24, 2022. City Attorney R. Christopher Meyer last week issued a legal opinion declaring City Council President Aidee Nieves had no authority to unilaterally expend public funds, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years, to support various social service and non-profit organizations in the city. In her latest commentary retired Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez writes Meyer’s opinion, as a matter of law, is correct, but wonders why this wasn’t flagged much earlier by municipal officials.
Only in Bridgeport host Lennie Grimaldi has asked for my thoughts and observations on the latest scandal surrounding the City Council. I am always grateful for the invitation to comment on Lennie’s platform, and again, I thank him.
On May 19, 2022, R. Christopher Meyer, City Attorney, issued a legal opinion entitled, “Absence of Legal Authority for City Council President’s Expenditures of Appropriated Supportive Contribution Funds.” This opinion was available for review, thanks to Lennie Grimaldi and OIB.
In the opening paragraph of his opinion, Attorney Meyer states that “a City Council member has raised concerns regarding the authority of the City Council President to expend funds from the City’s Legislative Department operating budget line-item #01095-05, Special Services.” He makes it clear that this concern was not raised by the City Finance Director, Ken Flatto, OPM Director, Nestor Nkwo or Mayor Ganim.
Attorney Meyer continues by letting us all know, that this unidentified City Council member has filed a pending CT State Elections Enforcement Commission (“SEEC”) complaint. It is in response to the allegations in this complaint of the City Council member that the Chief City Attorney issued his legal opinion.
In his five (5) page opinion, Attorney Meyer identifies what he considers to be the legal issue, and also sets forth a statement of facts. His list of facts essentially recites City Council President Aidee Nieves’ defense of the practice, which, in a nutshell is, “Tom McCarthy did it, and taught me, and I continued the practice, because I assumed it was ok.”
Attorney Meyer informs his readers that he spoke to Director of OPM Nestor Nkwo, Assistant City Clerk Frances Ortiz, Legislative Liaison, Walter Michael Boyer and Attorney Tom McCarthy, who was City Council president under Bill Finch.
He then copies portions of the charter that he believes are relevant to an analysis of the issue.
He concludes that there is no authority for these expenditures by the City Council President. However, he then puts on his defense counsel hat and claims “that the current and prior City Council presidents, in exercising the authority which they do not have, were acting reasonably and with a good faith belief that they possessed such authority.”
Is the defense that everyone does it, credible? How could all these financial wizards in the Ganim and Finch administrations allow this blatant misuse of public funds to go unaddressed?
Attorney Meyer does not care to go into that; probably for fear of what he might find.
It is acceptable to correct Aidee Nieves, but make sure you don’t explore the role of Tom McCarthy, a Bridgeport Democratic Party District Leader and member of the Democratic State Central Committee, a former City Employee, now employed by the Town of Trumbull and an Attorney.
We can’t let that happen!
To explore this ‘everybody does it’ and ‘past practices’ fig leaf defense, I decided to do what Attorney Meyer failed to do. I contacted Lisa Parziale, who served as President of the City Council for fourteen (14) years, and John Fabrizi, who served as City Council President before assuming the Mayor’s Chair, after Ganim 1 was convicted of public corruption. I also spoke to Tom White, a former City Council member, who was Director of Legislative Affairs, under both Mayor Fabrizi and Mayor Bill Finch.
Both Parziale and Fabrizi explained, in no uncertain terms, that this practice did not occur during their tenures as City Council President. All of the available evidence suggests that this practice began with Tom McCarthy. Unlike Aidee Nieves, he is an attorney, who should have known better.
Tom White was able to confirm that this practice originated with Tom McCarthy and Mayor Finch’s Chief of Staff, Adam Wood.
Despite the fact that Aidee Nieves is not off the hook based on the ‘everybody does it’ defense, it is reasonable to ask why no one pointed this out and corrected the impropriety until it was brought to Attorney Meyer’s attention by a City Council member. No one includes Mark Anastasi, the Chief City Attorney under Mayor Finch, who still advises the City Council in his consulting role.
It is reasonable to ask, what did Mayor Ganim know, and when did he know it? According to Bridgeport Budget documents, available online on the City website, the #01095-05 Special Services budget line-item requested by the City Council for the fiscal year 2022-23, was $65,169.00. This is the same amount requested in the current fiscal year, 2021-2022.
The account has been overdrawn by $39,875.00, a fact which the Mayor rectified in his proposed budget of $105,044.00, for the July 1, 2022-June 30, 2023 fiscal year.
Apparently Mayor Ganim never asked about the expenditures made by the City Council President from this line item. He evidently approved of the practice, because he made certain that his proposed budget increased the Council request, in the amount of the deficit.
Not only did the Mayor fail to blow the whistle, he expressly ratified and condoned the use of the #01095-05 line item by the City Council president.
Attorney Meyer’s opinion says that his office discussed the expenditure of funds with the Council President in 2021 and that he verbally advised her in November of 2021 that she lacked the authority to expend the funds.
After this verbal warning, why did the City Attorney not follow up with a legal opinion until May 19, 2022? Did he inform Mayor Ganim of his opinion when the Mayor proposed his $39,875.00 increase in early 2022?
Did he inform Nestor Nkwo or Ken Flatto, or any other Bridgeport employee, that no funds should be authorized or encumbered in light of his opinion?
Who signed the checks and when?
Why did Mayor Ganim ratify the account deficit, if he knew that funds were being spent improperly?
Although Attorney Meyer never named the Council member who filed the complaint in his opinion, our host OIB included a portion of the complaint filed by Council member Maria Pereira. I have obtained and reviewed the entire complaint together with the exhibits.
In her affidavit of complaint, Council Member Pereira alleges that Council President Nieves expended over $35,000 in the three months between May and July 2021 in payments to community groups and non-profits. This includes, $5,000 for “Caribe Night under the Stars,” a dinner sponsored by the Caribe Youth League; $2,225.00 for a Float in the Puerto Rican Parade, sponsored by the Puerto Rican Parade organization of which Council Member Maria Valle is active on the Board of Directors; and $7500 for City Lights Bridgeport Art Trail 11th Annual Pride, sponsored by City Lights of which City Council member Marcus Brown is a member of the Board of Directors.
The list goes on and on. Spending taxpayer dollars at the whim of the City Council, the so-called voice of the people of the City of Bridgeport.
One might reasonably ask, who protects the taxpayer?
While Attorney Meyer may wish to sugarcoat this activity with an opinion which says “they didn’t mean to do it,” and that “they acted in good faith,” how about looking at the Mayor’s financial people? After all, they are the ones who possess the financial credentials.
The timing of Attorney Meyer’s opinion also raises questions.
Would this opinion have been issued if Mayor Ganim had not refused to call a City Council Special Meeting, according to tradition, and permitted the City Council to vote on his budget?
Is it reasonable to assume that the legal research accelerated, in an effort to use the expenditures as a means of pressuring the City Council?
This ‘everybody did it’ canard reminds me of the movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, and the passionate closing argument delivered by the German defense lawyer, played by Maximillian Schell.
Schell defended a client who admitted his guilt, by railing against others who were also guilty and complicit. He wanted the court to believe, that if everyone was guilty, no one was guilty.
It didn’t work for Maximilian Schell and it shouldn’t work for the Bridgeport City Attorney.
However, while it is unambiguously true that both the City Council President and Attorney Tom McCarthy expended taxpayer dollars consistent with a practice the City Attorney has rightly condemned, if we are ever to move forward in the City of Bridgeport, we must avoid the temptation to scapegoat, and ask the obvious question, who else is guilty?
And the even larger question we must ask is what does this say about the utter collapse of integrity in our city government, which this sordid episode reflects?
Column update from Carmen Lopez:
I must issue a correction to my recent article.
In my article, I quoted from the budgets available on the city website.
As you know, I provided you with copies of the documents that I referred to as PDF documents and attached them to the article that I submitted to you.
It appears that the figures that I quoted were accurate, but the conclusions were not.
It seems that in Bridgeport everything is upside down, even the way the budget documents are presented to the public.
I always thought that the proper procedure and accepted practice was to read an account statement and/or ledger from the top down. However, that is not the case in Bridgeport.
Page 118, of the Budget Document, entitled Appropriations Supplement contains the expenditures for the Legislative Department, which is identified as #01095.
There are four categories as follows:
01095-01: Personnel Services
01095-02: Personnel Services
01095-04: Operational Expenses
01095-05: Special Services
As you can see, from the document that I sent you, there is nothing beneath 05-Special Services on page 118. I believed that the 05-Special Services category was a single line item.
I have been advised that in Bridgeport, you must read the page from the bottom up, instead of the accepted practice of reading a document from the top down.
Therefore, there are six separate line-items in the Special Services-05 category, which are listed above the Special Services category, rather than under it.
In reading the document from the bottom up, we can determine that the City Council President did not overspend the line item, as I believed, but rather it is worse than that.
The new budget adds a new expenditure of $39,875.00 in the Travel Services line item, which forms part of Special Services.
In this current fiscal year, only $125.00 had been budgeted for the Travel Services line item.
In his budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2023, Mayor Ganim increased the account from $125.00 to $40,000. This new increase was not designed to cover a deficit, as I stated in my article, but instead created a pot of money to be used by the City Council when traveling outside of Bridgeport for various junkets.
This of course, is an addition to the $9,000.00 per year stipend awarded to each council member.
Again, while the numbers don’t change, the interpretation of those numbers should reflect the actual expenditures.
There was no over expenditure, only a plan to spend more in the next fiscal year.
I apologize to you and your readers.
May I ask that you please publish this clarification.
Again, thank you for everything that you do to keep your readers informed.
Carmen L. Lopez