Booker ally, law firm will fork over $6M in settlement with bankrupt Newark water agency

Updated Dec 04, 2019

An ally of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and his old law firm have agreed to pay $6 million to settle a lawsuit alleging legal malpractice and widespread negligence perpetuated a multi-million kickback scheme that bankrupted the agency once in charge of treating Newark’s water.

It’s among the most significant developments in the bankruptcy case for the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation, the independent agency that received taxpayer money to oversee water treatment and delivery to half a million North Jersey residents.

The lawsuit filed by trustees for the agency in federal bankruptcy court, claimed that officials with oversight powers shared financial responsibility for the scandal because their inattention enabled wasteful and illegal spending and failed to stop millions in no-bid contracts for work that was never performed. Booker, who was mayor until 2013 and has since launched a bid for the presidency, was originally named in the complaint but a federal judge dismissed the case against him.

The NWCDC was ultimately dissolved and its responsibilities transferred to the city amid a federal investigation that landed the top boss in federal prison and embroiled eight others, who have pleaded guilty to or are facing criminal charges.

“The goal from the beginning has been to try and get some monies to feed it back to the city of Newark,” said Daniel Stolz, the attorney representing the NWCDC trustees in bankruptcy court.

The now-defunct law firm Trenk, DiPasquale, Della Fera & Sodono that represented the agency was named in the suit along with two of its attorneys who largely handled NWCDC’s matters: Jodi Luciani and Elnardo Webster. Webster served as the NWCDC’s ex-general counsel and also worked as a treasurer for Booker’s mayoral campaigns.

Linda Watkins-Brashear, who led the NWCDC and is now serving an eight-year prison sentence for soliciting bribes, told the FBI in 2015 that Webster set a donation goal for vendors to raise money for then-mayor Booker and his political friends. If they refused, there were repercussions, she claimed. Webster has denied those allegations.

The Trenk firm, Webster and Luciani agreed to settle claims by the NWCDC’s trustees last month and pay another $15,000 in court sanctions for failing to provide emails during discovery.

Webster did not respond to a call seeking comment. Luciani declined to comment when reached. The attorney representing Webster, Luciani and the Trenk firm also declined comment, saying the settlement was still pending a judge’s approval during a Dec. 17 hearing.

Booker’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment but a spokesperson has previously said the senator "faithfully executed his duties” at the NWCDC.

With the $6 million settlement, the NWCDC will have secured about $9 million, including $1 million already paid by Genova Burns, another law firm, in 2016. That firm represented the NWCDC in 2013-2014 when Webster and Luciani came over from the Trenk firm.

“There’s a few more odds and ends that we need to continue to pursue but these were the two main deep pockets so to speak in the lawsuit,” Stolz said.

The complaint’s claims agains 28 other defendants alleging misappropriation of funds, oversight failure and negligence is ongoing but as most of the individuals or entities have been convicted or are in default, Stolz said they don’t expect to collect much more.

In another twist, two convicted NWCDC employees are seeking pension payments.

Watkins-Brashear has said she’s entitled to $478,000, court records show. Donald Bernard Sr., a special projects manager who was sentenced to eight years in federal prison for soliciting bribes, filed a $176,000 pension claim.

Stolz said he’s fighting the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, an arm of U.S. government that guarantees pension payments to employee, from making these pay outs.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure those people don’t get any more money,” he said.

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment