Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 28, 2015

NJ Office of Administrative Law Opines there is No Conflict of Interest for City Councilmember-Attorney Who Voted to Appoint another Attorney With Whom He Has a Joint Lease and Shared Receptionist

Editor’s Note: While not directly on point as a land use matter, this is an interesting opinion.

Bhalla was an elected member of the Hoboken City Council. He voted to appoint Condon to represent the town in certain police department cases. It was shortly discovered after the vote that Bhalla and Condon had a joint lease and receptionist, and a complaint was filed to the Local Board Finance. Upon investigation, it became clear that both parties did not have an extremely close business or personal relationship and they operated separate law practices with no costs shared other than rent and the services of a secretary. Despite these findings, the Board issued a Notice of Violation as it found that even though sharing an office space with a professional appointed by the city council does not constitute a substantial conflict, the co-signing of a lease should be considered a shared business relationship that would appear to constitute a direct/indirect financial involvement that could impair one’s objectivity or independence of judgment. Bhalla requested a hearing after the notice was issued, and both parties submitted requests for summary decisions.

In deciding whether petitioner violated the Local Government Ethics Law by voting to award a legal services contract to an individual who shared a former office lease and a receptionist, the Office of Administrative Law found that the petitioner did not have a direct or indirect financial or personal interest to retain Condon because both individuals did not practice in the same area of law while sharing their office space. The Office further found the possibility of Condon purposely defaulting on his payments on the office lease if he did not receive the retainer extension to be a fanciful possibility that would ultimately be remote and speculative. The Office went on to find that the two attorneys kept their affairs separate and independent, noting that an attorney’s office sharing arrangement is not a partnership or association and does not give rise to a conflict of interest. (see, Murray, 345 N.J. Super. at 168). The Office concluded by finding it remote and speculative that Bhalla would depart from his sworn duty because of the joint and several liabilities in sharing offices, and that Bhalla met his burden of proving by a preponderance of the credible evidence that his vote to extend Condon’s contract did not violate the Local Government Ethics Law.

Bhalla. Local 2014 WL 5798034 (NJ OAL, Comm. Affairs, 9/19/2014)

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