State Comptroller Matthew Boxer is on a campaign to eliminate wasteful spending. His latest investigation has shown local governments are spending too much on their legal counsel. Boxer told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that all five of the five municipalities his office investigated had problems related to spending on attorneys. He said he would support a move to make his office’s recommendations into law for the state.
After offering guidance to local governments throughout the state about how to manage their relationships with their lawyers and review legal bills, Boxer said his office found a series of problems. “There were a slew of failures to abide by the best practices that we had identified,” he said.
One municipality in particular — North Bergen — has caught the attention of Gov. Chris Christie who called out Mayor Nicholas Sacco by name at an event last week. Boxer said the investigation did reveal issues.
“We found a series of problems and deficiencies in North Bergen ranging from a no-work job that one of the attorneys in their legal department had all the way down to the amount of money that was being paid to their township attorney, which is by far more than any other municipality in the state,” Boxer said.
He said that North Bergen officials were unable to explain what one of the attorney’s job responsibilities were or what his role was. “Then when we asked more questions and sought documents about his role in the township, he tendered his resignation. When we later interviewed him, he explained to us that he had to try to make work there, that no work was being assigned to him, but that he was routinely solicited for campaign contributions,” Boxer said.
Sacco has declined to comment or appear on NJ Today regarding the issues.
Boxer said legals fees cost municipalities a lot of money and that’s why it’s critical to end wasteful spending.
“Local governments throughout the state spend a large amount of money on their relationship with their lawyers — in excess of $100 million across the state. So the stakes are high. The order of magnitude of these expenditures is significant. And that’s why it’s so important that we make sure that these over payments end,” Boxer said. “Bottom line is that local officials need to vet these legal bills in the same way they would vet these bills if they were paying for it out of their own pocket. It shouldn’t be any less scrutiny just because you’re dealing with the taxpayers’ money.”
Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande has suggested passing legislation that would make the recommendations law. Boxer supports that. “These are common sense recommendations all local governments should be following, and enacting those provisions into law makes perfect sense to us,” he said.
While Boxer admits his findings suggest wasteful spending on legal counsel is widespread among local governments, he said the five municipalities that were investigated were chosen based on some elements of risk.
“I want to be a little wary of extrapolating five for five throughout the state. But despite that being said, obviously when you look at five places, you see problems at all five, it indicates that the problems are widespread,” Boxer said.