During last year’s mayoral election, Mayor Ravi Bhalla’s employment with one of the state’s most politically-connected law firms was a major topic of discussion due to the many conflicts of interest his employment could cause. His law firm counted among its clients Suez Water, the city’s water system operator, as well as NJ Transit which owns significant property in Hoboken and is in the process of being redeveloped.
During the course of the campaign, as public concern mounted about Ravi being connected with those statewide interests, he publicly announced that if elected he would, “be working full-time for the people of Hoboken, severing my employment with the firm.” As Mayor-elect he followed through on that and resigned from his position at the firm, Florio, Perucci, Steinhardt & Fader as he prepared to be the full-time mayor he promised voters he would be.
But now, just over a month later, Ravi Bhalla has broken that promise and taken a job as an “Of Counsel” attorney at the law firm Lavery, Selvaggi, Abromitis & Cohen -- a real estate, land use and zoning law firm that’s just as much a part of the establishment patronage network as his former firm.
Two Full Time Jobs
Hoboken’s mayor is a full-time position as we pay our chief executive the most in Hudson County and one of the highest in the entire state. For reference, 9 of the 12 mayors in the County make less than $33,000. Of the other three, Bayonne pays $72,000, Jersey City pays $115,600 and Hoboken tops the list at $116,100. Additionally, the mayor receives a generous benefits package for him and his entire family which includes health coverage and retirement. The only other mayor who is in the six-figure club, Jersey City’s Steve Fulop, correctly treats his office as a full time job, and Hoboken residents deserve the same. Taking a second job while being paid this high level of public salary is concerning not the least of which because it will be impossible to separate the mayor’s use of city resources for public versus private purposes.
A Conflict of Interest with No Oversight
Mayor Bhalla’s spokesman claims his job is about “mentoring young lawyers,” but if he wanted to do that he should teach at a law school and do so apart from his responsibilities to the people of Hoboken. Sadly, this is really about one thing -- influence peddling. A firm that puts the Mayor of Hoboken on its masthead is a coup for only one entity -- that law firm, certainly not young lawyers and definitely not the taxpayers. We can be absolutely certain that this new firm will seek to leverage its relationship with our Mayor into new clients or the benefit of existing ones. How and if those interests impact city vendors, contractors and policy is unknown, but this unknown impact is exactly why this second job should be concerning to all from an ethical level.
A Republican Law Firm that Donated to Donald Trump
To make matters even worse, the new law firm that Mayor Bhalla is working for has numerous political and financial ties to his previous firm. Both firms are major contributors to a Political Action Committee called “Leadership PAC for Better Government,” an organization that has made thousands of dollars in political donations for the purpose of securing more government contracts for its founders. The PAC donated $2,000 to Donald Trump and $3,500 to Kim Guadagno. In fact, one of the principles of the firm recently served as the Chairman of the New Jersey Republican Party -- and he was replaced recently as Chairman by a partner in Ravi’s previous firm! Considering Mayor Bhalla promise to “stand up to Trump,” it’s offensive for him to join a Republican-leaning law firm that actively supports candidates who fight harder than anyone to push Trump’s agenda in NJ. This is a clear betrayal of Hoboken’s progressive values.
Further, I am personally alarmed that Mr. Bhalla will be sharing the same title with a colleague at his new firm, former Congressman Jim Courter, who once ran as the Republican candidate for Governor, and called for limiting the rights of homosexuals to work as teachers, foster parents and camp counselors or in other jobs that put them in contact with children. Source: The New York Times.
Hoboken was promised full-time Mayor and we deserve better than a part-time leader whose attention is divided. That’s why the City Council will be publicly calling for Mayor Bhalla to disclose the full details of the financial relationship with his new firm. Further, I will be immediately introducing a comprehensive ethics ordinance to ensure that our mayor holds one job -- serving as our mayor.