Sunday, August 28, 2005

Interesting article re: Jack Morris

This article is from May 30, 2003 discusses a Jersey City billboard deal involving former McGreevey Chief-of-Staff Gary Taffet, McGreevey First Chief Counsel Paul Levinsohn and Jack Morris in 2001. Taffet and Levinsohn resigned in 2002 as questions about their billboard deals and whether they peddled their influence with the governor for profit arose.

The attorney who negotiated the Jersey City billboard deal was Jack Arseneault. Arseneault's firm, Arseneault, Fassett & Mariano, sent The Courier a letter last week demanding a retraction of certain statements my publisher made about Mr. Morris in an August 2005 editorial, or a legal action would be pursued.

Interestingly enough, one of the statements being challeneged is my publisher's characterization of the number of investigations of business deals involving Mr. Morris. The Jersey City billboard deal was not directly stated in the editorial but was included in the research the editorial was based off of.

I wonder how much of a conflict of interest this represents for Arseneault, Fassett & Mariano.
May 30, 2003



The deal was simple: Five billboards for a firetruck.

A week after James E. McGreevey's election as governor in 2001, a lawyer representing a business venture involving two of McGreevey's top campaign aides began negotiating in earnest with Jersey City officials to build five billboards on state property near Liberty State Park.

The lawyer, Jack Arseneault, a prominent criminal attorney, said his clients would donate a hook-and-ladder truck to the financially troubled city if Jersey City officials agreed not to interfere with the potentially lucrative deal. City officials put the truck's cost at $600,000.

The discussions took place as the aides, Gary Taffet and Paul Levinsohn, also were transacting a series of last-minute advertising deals to increase the value of other billboards they owned. They were facing a Jan. 15, 2002, deadline to sell their interests in their billboard business to take top posts in the new McGreevey administration.

Their willingness to donate the firetruck underscores the potential riches they stood to earn from the signs, which were to be built on NJ Transit property next to the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line. In the end, the Jersey City deal was never completed and the billboards remain unbuilt. But the remaining investors retain the right to move forward on the project.

J. Michael Nolan, a lawyer representing Taffet and Levinsohn, said they divested their interests in all billboard projects to comply with a McGreevey administration rule banning officials from receiving outside income. He declined to say how much -- if anything -- they were paid to relinquish their interests in the Jersey City project.

"When they entered state government, on the day they entered state government, they had no interest in any billboards, they had no money owed to them, they had no future interest, period," Nolan said.

Taffet, Levinsohn and their spokesman, Bob Sommer, declined to comment. So did Arseneault, who at the time of the negotiations was a leading contender to become attorney general in the new McGreevey administration.

In the three years leading up to McGreevey's election, Taffet, 36, and Levinsohn, 35, ran a lucrative billboard business that won state and local approvals for 14 billboards around the state. They were running McGreevey's gubernatorial campaign at the same time -- Taffet as campaign manager; Levinsohn as the chief fund-raiser.

Days before McGreevey's inauguration, they sold their interests in those projects, walking away with $2.2 million each. (They had sold another billboard in Union Township the previous year for $486,000, which they split, according to Nolan.)

Federal authorities are now conducting a criminal investigation into their billboard business. The Jersey City deal is part of that probe, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the inquiry.

Taffet and Levinsohn have said repeatedly that their billboard dealings were appropriate and aboveboard. In the new administration, Taffet served as chief of staff to McGreevey and Levinsohn was his chief counsel. Both resigned last year.

The Jersey City billboard deal began taking shape in August 2001, when a Piscataway-based company, JSM at Fire Road LLC, sought a license from NJ Transit to erect five billboards on authority property in Jersey City.

JSM is operated by Jack Morris, a Middlesex County developer, major Democratic contributor and partner with former state Sen. John Lynch (D-Middlesex) in another business venture.

Last year, the state Attorney General's Office investigated an Edison land deal in which Morris was paid $5.6 million by the township for property the developer purchased six months earlier for $1.4 million. Investigators concluded there was no wrong-doing but acknowledged they never interviewed key critics of the transaction or closely scrutinized the appraisals on which it was based.

Morris declined to return phone calls seeking comment.

Taffet and Levinsohn also were involved in JSM's billboard effort, according to Alex Booth, Jersey City's corporation counsel. Booth said Arseneault and other Jersey City officials told him of their participation. Another senior city official who asked to remain anonymous also said the two men were involved.

NJ Transit documents also list Vahan Gureghian, a Philadelphia attorney who was an investor with Taffet and Levinsohn in other billboard deals, as JSM's contact for the Jersey City venture. In a brief interview, Gureghian said, "I never had anything to do with it. I don't have any other comment."

Jersey City bans new billboards but had no authority to block the deal because the plan called for building the signs on state property that was exempt from local zoning rules. Taffet and Levinsohn had used this approach at least three other times to site billboards in communities that banned them. Even so, Booth told JSM that he believed the city could block the deal.

"I took the position that this is a balancing test and it doesn't balance that we should just say yes to build your billboards," Booth said he told Arseneault.

Negotiations with the city officials ensued. Arseneault sent Jersey City officials a lengthy legal brief dated Nov. 12, 2001, explaining why the signs could be built despite the city's billboard ban.

"We started to talk about what else can happen here," Booth said, recalling his conversation with Arseneault. "He came up and said, 'Let's do something for the city.' At that time, the fire department was heavily protesting and that was a big issue. I said: 'Why don't you put a big firetruck out there?' He called me back later and he said that was something we could talk about."

In the end, JSM agreed to give the city two to four weeks of free advertising a year, plus a hook-and-ladder firetruck, according to city officials and a draft agreement on file in Jersey City.

"The only factor the mayor considered was getting the ladder truck," Bill Ayala, the chief of staff to Mayor Glenn Cunningham, said.

The city council concurred with the deal, voting Jan. 9 -- six days before McGreevey's inauguration -- to allow the billboards.

Correspondence and negotiations continued for more than a month but then cooled without explanation, Booth said.

By April, some local residents had heard about the proposed billboards and began complaining. They were joined in their opposition by the Friends of Liberty State Park. Cunningham quickly joined the chorus of critics.

Booth said that by then, he had the feeling that the developers had lost interest -- at least temporarily.

"I didn't expect them to make a move," Booth said. "It withered away. They obviously lost interest."

© 2003, The Star-Ledger

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At 11:59 PM, Blogger Cutey said...



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