State Comptroller Matthew Boxer says municipalities and school systems spend more than $100 million in legal services each year, and when his office took a look at five local government units, he found that each and every one of them was significantly overpaying for services.
The most egregious example was in North Bergen, which spent nearly $1.3 million on legal services in 2011, including $420,885 in salaries and $863,458 to outside counsel. The Township Attorney is the highest-paid municipal attorney in the state at $207,870. His affiliated law firm — which the attorney says he no longer practices for but which promotes him on its website and letterhead — billed North Bergen $371,407. An additional 10 part-time attorneys worked for the township, and some were awarded health benefits and even pension benefits, which is against state policy. One of these attorneys told the comptroller’s office that he had stopped receiving legal work from the town and that he was routinely solicited to make political contributions.
The comptroller’s office also cited the towns of West New York and Medford, the Freehold Regional High School District, and Plainfield public schools as having irregularities in their legal payments. These ranged from high prices — Plainfield paid its attorneys 130 percent of what the state norm is — to firms billing governments for matters that were within the scope of their monthly retainer or charging attorney rates for clerical tasks.
Boxer referred the North Bergen issue to the Division of Criminal Justice. Asked about the report, Gov. Chris Christie called it “completely outrageous and it’s indicative of the absolute taxpayer waste that exists in North Bergen.“