Dispute festers between Norco county board, GPA
War is brewing between Northampton County and its own creation, the General Purpose Authority (GPA). At their April 10 meeting, GPA board members voted to hire Philadelphia law firm Conrad and O’Brien as “special counsel” for anticipated litigation against the county. No bids were sought from other firms.
“We can’t wait,” Solicitor John Lushis said. At that same meeting, Lushis accused the county of being in breach of its agreement with the GPA. They also silenced the county’s second highest ranking officer, Charles Dertinger, when he attempted to answer one of their questions because “courtesy of the floor” was over.
Executive Lamont McClure has asked county council to convene a committee so he can list his concerns. They include attorney fees of $813,000 to the Lushis law firm, Norris McLaughlin and Marcus, over the past two years. County officials are also concerned that GPA Chair Shawn Langen has billed $11,950 for his own services last year. Lushis’s law firm also copyrighted documents he prepared for a bridge repair project and then billed the county.
What is the GPA?
First established on May 6, 1999, pursuant to the Municipality Authorities Act, it is a seven-person board appointed by the county executive and confirmed by county council for staggered five-year terms. It has traditionally acted as a conduit for both taxable and tax exempt bonds to help finance public and private projects, mostly with hospitals and universities. It also administers the NorCo Loan and Development Fund and the Community Investment Partnership Program Revolving Loan Fund. In 2016, it became the lead agency involved in a public private partnership plan (P3) to refurbish or replace 33 county-owned bridges at a cost of $38 million, with the work being done by Kriger Construction. Kriger has completed repairs to one bridge thus far, with two more projected for completion by the end of June.
Somewhere along the way, former Executive John Brown decided to use Lushis to research the applicability of P3 to the county jail. Lushis’s bills for these services were passed through and approved by the GPA as “special legal services” and were ultimately paid by the county.
GPA Lawyer billed $813,000 in 2016 and 2017
Pursuant to partial responses to two Right-to-Know requests that were filed in mid-January and still are under review, this writer has discovered that Lushis and his law firm (Norris, McLaughlin and Marcus) billed Northampton County $783,039.30 over the past two years. In addition, that firm is allowed to collect fees when outfits like St. Luke’s or Lehigh University float a bond. In December 2017, Lushis charged $30,000 for a St. Luke’s bond. Overall, Lushis and his firm have made at least $813,039.30 from their affiliation with the GPA in 2016 and 2017.
Lushis is the successor to Scott Allinson, who also was a lawyer with Norris, McLaughlin and Marcus (NMM) and represented the GPA. Allinson was convicted in federal court of bribery and conspiracy March 1 in connection with a pay-to-play scheme that included former Allentown Mayor Edwin Pawlowski. During that trial, evidence was introduced that Pawlowski vacationed at the Key West vacation home of a firm lawyer. In her summation to the jury, the assistant U.S. attorney referred to founding partner Matt Sorrentino as a “liar.” The firm insists that Allinson acted alone.
Requirements of Administrative Code ignored
Former Executive John Brown’s authority to hire a special solicitor is set forth in the county’s Administrative Code. The only professional service agreements exempted from the code are those negotiated by the courts or human services. § 13.01e. Professional services defined as “services requiring specialized knowledge, skill and expertise ... .” § 13.02. Procurement authority is vested in the county executive, subject to approval by council. § 13.03. All county services, including professional services, must be obtained by one of several forms of competitive negotiation. § 13.07a. Services in excess of $25,000 requires a written contract. § 13.16a. These contracts must be filed in the Procurement Department. § 13.16a. If they exceed $100,000, council approval is needed. § 13.16c. Contracts for professional services, must require that there be a final report provided directly to county council. § 13.16f.
These requirements were ignored. There was no competitive negotiation. There is no written contract, and nothing is on file with the Procurement Department. Though Brown paid over $100,000, he never sought council approval. No final report was filed. This was a blatant end run around council.
Section 13.21 of the Administrative Code provides, “No elected or appointed official or employee of the County shall intentionally or knowingly circumvent the provisions of this Article. Further, that any such elected or appointed official or employee of the County of Northampton who shall intentionally and/or knowingly violate this Article shall be subject to surcharge to the extent of the damage shown to be thereby sustained by the County of Northampton, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon a conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to imprisonment of not more than one year or pay a fine of not more than $1,000, or both. Any contract entered into in violation of the within article shall not be binding upon the County of Northampton.”
Lushis laying groundwork for jail at
What are these “special legal services?”
Lushis was helping lay the groundwork for a jail at Gracedale in Upper Nazareth Township. Former Executive Brown had called reports of a jail at Gracedale “fake news.” During his unsuccessful re-election campaign, he eventually pledged never to build there. .
The Lushis bills tell quite the story.
On Feb. 8, Lushis charged for participation in a two-hour meeting with Brown and Upper Nazareth Solicitor Gary Asteak. He and his firm also spent that month researching the application of zoning laws and also drafted legislation to enable the jail to be built as a P3 (public-private partnership) project.
In March, Lushis met with State Senator Pat Browne to discuss legislation that would enable the jail to be built as a P3 project, and started lining up banks like American, First Northern, PNC and Embassy Bank as possible lenders. His firm drafted a zoning ordinance amendment for Upper Nazareth Township. They researched whether the Upper Nazareth Zoning Ordinance is exclusionary. They also studied whether “essential government services” like a jail trumps local zoning.
Finally, March 27 arrived, the day of Brown’s backroom meeting with Upper Nazareth supervisors.
Lushis billed the county for 10 hours that day. Other members of the Norris, McLaughlin billed for another 13 hours. Twenty-three hours for one day.
And the county paid for this meeting, about which no one in the community knew anything.
In April and May, Senator Browne was lobbied to enact legislation in which local zoning laws could be set aside for projects like a jail.
Lushis billed county to copyright documents
Lushis also billed the county for the cost of copyrighting six agreements he prepared for the GPA. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, these documents were all registered on 10/5/17.
Lushis has made these documents the property, not of GPA or the county, but his law firm. Norris, McLaughlin and Marcus.
According to invoice #10797926, the county was billed $3,390 to file six copyright applications on 10/5/17.
A copyright application costs between $35 and $55.
In recent months, Frank Pintabone and Paul Anthony have been appointed to the GPA. Anthony was appointed to succeed Helene Whitaker, whose term had expired. But Neal Koplin resigned before his term expired. Lushis told the GPA that they could appoint someone themselves because Koplin resigned in the middle of his term.
When Executive Lamont McClure quickly appointed Pintabone to fill the vacancy, the GPA wanted to see legal opinions, from both the county solicitor and the county council solicitor, that this appointment was lawful. Langen and Lushis appeared miffed that their directive had been ignored.
“We welcome Frank,” Langen said. “We’re gonna work this out. I just want everyone to know that we still are not in receipt of either of the things we asked for “
Langen refuses to
After Langen made these pronouncements at the April 10 meeting, both Administrator Charles Dertinger and County Solicitor Missy Rudas were sitting in the audience. Rudas either raised her hand or stood. She apparently had something to say, but Langen refused to recognize her.
Dertinger approached the podium, carrying documents and ready to address concerns. He was summarily dismissed.
“We’re not doing courtesy of the floor right now,” Langen announced. He sent the county’s second highest ranking officer back to his seat. “But welcome, Frank. We’ll figure this out. Hopefully, they’ll do the paperwork they’re supposed to be doing. ... We brought this up two months ago. ... I met face to face with Mr. Dertinger and Ken Kraft afterward. They said, ‘Yep, we’ll work this out. That hasn’t happened at all.”
Pintabone suggests Dertinger should be recognized
Pintabone, who was probably wondering by this time what was going on, suggested that maybe things could be worked out if they allowed Dertinger to speak.
Then Lushis spoke up. “I received a correspondence yesterday from the county solicitor stating that the law speaks for itself. That’s the opinion.”
In other words, contrary to what Langen asserted, the GPA did have a legal opinion from the county solicitor. They just don’t like it.
Dertinger got up a second time to say that interim appointments have been made in the past by council, not the GPA.
“We’re not going to do a three-hour meeting today,” Langen said.
Lushis interjected, “Shawn, we need to keep the meeting moving.”
“My worst fears have been realized,” said Lushis. He claimed to have just discovered that privileged information was leaked to people in the county and that the “Right to Know request process has been compromised.” He added that the integrity of the GPA must be sacrosanct.
“You have no choice but to retain special counsel,” he insisted. “I will state for the record that the county is currently in breach of the P3 agreement.”
This is an apparent reference to McClure’s refusal to pay Langen $11,000 he billed for work last year.
Lushis had a Philadelphia firm in mind, too; one that he “interfaced” during his days at Bethlehem Steel. He said he had no time to seek proposals. “We can’t wait,” he insisted. “The RTK request process has been compromised. I have right here the written documentation proving it.”
Lushis indicated that he offered to resign several times if board members thought he was getting in the way, but the problem is not him.
Lushis billed $34,000 to respond to right-to-know requests
At its April 10 meeting, the GPA also approved five invoices submitted by Lushis’ law firm, NMM, without comment. They include a bill for $34,000 to respond to the two Right-to-Know requests by this author and a third from The Morning Call.