Feds are investigating mayor’s aide. City wants taxpayers to foot her legal bill.

Updated Aug 7, 2019

Orange city officials want taxpayers to foot the criminal defense bills for the mayor’s chief of staff who has been tied to an ongoing federal grand jury investigation into alleged fraud and corruption, NJ Advance Media has learned.

Tyshammie Cooper, a Democrat who in addition to serving as chief of staff to Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren is also an Essex County Freeholder, has been named in a subpoena as part of the federal government’s wide-ranging investigation into misuse of public funds and theft that began more than two years ago.

The September 2018 subpoena — obtained by NJ Advance Media and previously unreported — is the first time Cooper has been identified as someone of interest to investigators, rather than just a witness to potential crimes. Cooper has also been named in two FBI search warrants served in Orange City Hall and the public library in 2017 but has not been charged with any crimes.

Cooper declined to take a call from a reporter at her office and did not respond to a follow-up email seeking an interview. She was not home when a reporter visited her home early Monday evening and did not respond to a message left on her cell phone on Tuesday.

The government’s investigation into Orange erupted in 2016 when the FBI raided the public library seizing documents related to several individuals, including Cooper, who was then the Library Board of Trustees president. A subpoena issued to City Hall days later again sought records related to Cooper’s compensation and benefits.

City Hall was subsequently raided in January 2017 and the FBI took Cooper’s computer. The government served additional subpoenas on City Hall last month, according to a person familiar with the probe.

On Wednesday, the Orange City Council will consider hiring the law firm Whipple, Azzarello, LLC for $15,000 to represent Cooper in the probe. But public records show the firm was already hired 10 months ago — without council approval.

Correspondence and invoices over the last few months show the Whipple firm has already performed more than $6,000 worth of work for the city in connection to the federal probe — at least some of which involved Cooper.

In one instance, an unpaid invoice bills the city $500 for an October conference call with “T. Cooper,” records obtained through a public records request show. The invoices don’t show work involving other named employees.

A May 7 letter from Whipple addressed to Cooper, not the city’s law department, details outstanding invoices for work spanning from late 2018 to March 2019, according to a copy of the correspondence obtained by NJ Advance Media. All other invoices are addressed to the law department.

The firm’s total bill of $6,025 remains outstanding, vendor records show.

Whipple’s October 2018 retainer agreement with the city was never approved by the council, according to a review of meeting agendas and copies of the agreement provided in a public records request. Members of the city council also said it was the first time they were seeing any proposed contracts with the firm.

“For someone in the city to go out and hire this firm without the council’s advice and consent, it doesn’t sit well with Kerry Coley and no way, shape or form that I can support this resolution,” Councilman Kerry Coley said.

He said the council already hired Critchley, Kinum and Denoia in 2017, shortly after the FBI raided City Hall, to represent the city in the ongoing federal investigation.

Councilwoman Donna Williams said she’s not aware why the city would need two law firms representing it in the ongoing federal investigation.

The city declined to comment through a spokesman. Whipple, Azzarello, LLC did not immediately return a request for comment.

It remains unclear why Cooper was named in the subpoena.

Criminal defense lawyers said the justice department places everyone in one of three categories during an investigation — a subject, target or witness. A witness is someone who has information but is not in any way believed to be involved in wrongdoing. A target is someone whom investigators have sufficient evidence of wrongdoing and who will likely be charged. A subject is somewhere in between.

“You are being looked at,” explained Robert Bianchi, a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor who is not involved in the case and spoke generally. “There is something that is going on here that doesn’t seem right to us, but it’s not saying the person has committed a crime.”

At the same time, legal experts said when an employee is named a target or a subject in an investigation, it makes sense to hire another firm to represent those individuals to avoid conflicting interests.

It’s unclear whether or not local laws in Orange would allow for coverage of Cooper’s legal fees. An employee’s legal defense can be covered by a municipality only when that person is not a named defendant in an investigation, complaint or charges, the city’s indemnification ordinance says. The employee must also be acting in the city’s interest, in good faith and agree in writing to reimburse the city unless he or she is acquitted.

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