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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

NorCo's GPA Hires "Special" Counsel From Philly For Fight With County

If there was any doubt in anyone's mind whether Northampton County's General Purpose Authority (GPA) is a runaway train, it was removed during yesterday's meeting. Solicitor John Lushis, who has been paid $813,000 over the past two years, continues to run the show,. In fact, five invoices from his firm were approved for payment without anyone batting an eye. That includes GPA Board member Peg Ferraro,an elected official who should be representing the public, not the Norris McLaughlin law firm. The county's second highest ranking official, Administrator Charles Dertinger, was silenced when he attempted to answer questions raised by the GPA  Lushis accused the County of being in breach of its agreement with the GPA. And they voted to hire Philadelphia law firm Conrad and O'Brien for potential litigation against the county.

The meeting started with a statement from Chair Shawn Langen, who has billed NorCo $11,950 for checking the work of a third party engineer who was hired to check the work of bridge builder Kriger Construction. The statement he read, which I have reproduced, was obviously prepared by Lushis:
"The county has made certain assertions, most notably with respect to the P3 bridge project. Notably, on 4/3/18, the County Solicitor informed Solicitor Lushis that we may be headed to litigation. The county has also asserted that copyrights related to the P3 documents should be transferred to the county. [The copyrighted documents indicate they have been created for the sole use of the GPA]. The county solicitor has also advised Solicitor Lushis that litigation could possibly occur over the copyrights. The GPA has received three right-to-know requests. The party making the request can file an appeal with the records office. Neil Koplin resigned in late January, Solicitor Lushis has requested on several occasions that the county solicitor provide an opinion stating that the manner in which Mr. Koplin's seat was filled complied with applicable law. The opinion has not been provided. The foregoing matters could possibly result in disputes and adversarial proceedings, including litigation. Thus, the Board will not discuss any specifics relative to this matter in the public meeting. Further, the Board must now decide whether to retain special counsel in view of these events. This will be discussed later in the meeting."
After solemnly announcing that these matters will not be discussed, that's precisely what happened.

Frank Pintabone's appointment. - 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. Nobody had a problem. But Neal Koplin resigned in the middle of his term. Lushis told the GPA that they could appoint someone themselves. But Executive Lamont McClure quickly appointed Pintabone toKoplin's 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 were miffed that their directive had been ignored.

"We welcome Frank," claimed Langen. "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 Recognize Dertinger. -  When Langen made these pronouncements, both Administrator Charles Dertinger and County Solicitor Missy Rudas were sitting in the peanut gallery with the little people. Missy either raised her hand or stood. She apparently had something to say, but Langen refused to recognize her.

Administrator Charles 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," announced Langen, who imperiously sent the county's second highest ranking officer back to his seat. "But welcome, Frank. We'll figure his 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. - Frank Pintabone, who was probably wondering by this time what the hell 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 the misrepresentation made by Langen, the GPA had a legal opinion from the County Solicitor. They just doesn'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. In fact, he told me later that Mark Schiavone was appointed by County Council after Lazaro Fuentes left the GPA in the middle of his term. He had other examples as well, but was shot down again.

"We're not going to do a three-hour meeting today," said Langen. ""Shawn, we need to keep the meeting moving," added Lushis, in what clearly is a violation of his role as solicitor.

Lushis interjected, "Shawn, we need to keep the meeting moving."

P3 Bridge project concerns. - According to the third-party engineer, Kriger Construction should have three bridges done by the end of June. They have contracted to replace or repair 33 county bridges, but have only completed one bridge so far. According to the third party engineer, Kriger hopes to complete 8-10 bridges this year. he added that he has never seen bridge building go so smoothly as it has with Kriger.   

Langen disputed claims that the County is in the dark. "There was some assertion this week that the County does not know what is going on with the bridge project and doesn't have any contact, and we're in contact almost on a daily basis with their Director of Public Works." 

Paul Anthony questioned whether Kiriger is paying a living wage. Lushis promised to pull payrolls,something he hasn't done. he's also apparently decided, on his own, to ignore a county law requiring that a certain percentage of the work be done by people who live here in the Lehigh Valley. Lushis huffed that the "applicability of that provision to this project is highly uncertain." He said it could be unconstitutional.

Public comment. - In all its years of existence, the GPA has only ever heard from two members of the public, Jeff Fox and yours truly. Jeff Fox is nice. I'm not. In my first exercise of my right to address my own government, Lushis began blowin' oil almost immediately and had to be thrown on a lift afterwards to find out where he was leaking. yesterday, I called on hom to resign. The amount of money paid to him is obscene, and his firm has been tainted by the pay-to-play investigation in Allentown.

The GPA response to public comment appears to be abject terror. Instead of actually listening to what is being said, they have decided to create a "policy" for public comment. Maybe limit comment to 30 seconds. If you're a blogger, 10 seconds. 

Special Counsel. - "My worst fears have been realized," exclaimed Lushis. He claimed to have just discovered that "privileged information" was supplied 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," apparently because McClure refuses to pay Langen.

Lushis had a Philadelphia firm in mind, too. One that he "interfaced"  (whatever that means) during his days at Bethlehem Steel. 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."

I don't, and I'm the person who made the request.

If Lushis is blowing oil over the disclosure of his fees to the county, then he should know he waived attorney-client privilege the second those bills went to the county for payment. And most legal bills are not privileged. 

So now, in addition to paying the Lushis law firm an obscene amount of money, a law firm from Philly that Lushis has personally selected will be taking even more public money.
 
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.

Sorry, John, but the problem is you. Resign.
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