Monday, January 07, 2013

How does this look to you?

The late Art Holland, when he was the mayor of Trenton, used to say that it wasn’t enough for a public official to be honest; they also need to appear honest.

This was just an inside out way of saying that appearances can be deceiving and even if your intentions are pure, things might not look that way.

Appearance and intent seem to be the crux of the current Federal case against the current mayor of Trenton, Tony Mack. The mayor, his brother Ralphiel and supporter JoJo Giorgianni have been arrested and indicted on charges they conspired to use the Tony’s office to profit from a proposed (and, we now know, bogus) development scheme. Did they really intend to personally profit from the mayor’s position as head of city government? Or were they sincerely trying to get a “deal done” that would benefit the city?

Last week, it was revealed that the FBI has another investigation going in Trenton. According to Alex Zdan of the Times, the Feds have subpoenaed documents pertaining to five housing developments started under the prior administration of long-time mayor Doug Palmer. Zdan broke the story on Saturday, December 29 and had a follow up piece on Monday, December 31.

Coming back around to an investigation that apparently started two or three years ago, the federal subpoena requests the city of Trenton turn over accounting and payment records for the Pennington, Southwest Village I and Southwest Village II, Canal Plaza Homeownership and Catherine S. Graham Square redevelopment projects. All were being “shepherded” by Robert Kahan.
Kahan has been doing redevelopment work in Trenton since at least 1997 when he formed the Warren Street Urban Renewal Limited Partnership.  Over the years, Kahan and/or his Tara ConstructionManagement/Tara Developers/Tara Developers II have worked on several projects around Trenton.

Tara worked on the Bellevue Court project with Isles a decade ago.

Then something happened. Tara and/or Kahan were suddenly all over the place.

Between April 2005 and April 2006, Kahan formed five LLC’s to work on five separate projects within the city of Trenton. He also formed Tara Developers LLC in April of 2006.

Forming LLC’s for redevelopment projects is apparently a fairly standard way of operating. It is at least an attempt to isolate the individual from any liabilities the corporate entity might encounter…especially those caused by other parties (contractors and such).

At the time they were created, the state of NJ, public records show that the registered address and agent for all except the Monmouth Management at Trenton, LLC was 1512 East Wheat Road in Vineland. Robert Kahan is listed as the registered agent and managing member.

Monmouth Management at Trenton, LLC was created between Tara and 319 Elton LLC, a company owned by Dov Gluck of Lakewood, NJ. In the initial incorporation, Monmouth Management at Trenton listed its registered address 1245 Airport Road, Lakewood and Gluck was the registered agent.

So far, nothing appears to be amiss.

In July 2005, Tara Construction Management, LLC (one of Kahan’s companies) contributed $1000 to then Mayor Doug Palmer’s re-election campaign. Tara had also given the Palmer campaign $1000 in June of 2003.

Although done all the time, contributions from LLC’s and LP’s are actually prohibited in New Jersey. While the corporate entity can issue the check, the contribution is credited to the member or partner who signs the check unless there is an accompanying letter explaining how the contribution should be distributed amongst all partners/members. Remember this for later and read on. {Edited for clarity.}

Tara Construction Management also contributed $700 to the re-election campaign of then East Ward Councilman Gino Melone in that same time span. Plus, Tara had contributed $250 to Melone’s campaign in January of 2005.

On June 1, 2005, a mortgage was issued between the City of Trenton and Spring Street Housing, LLC (one of Kahan’s companies). This was the start of the Southwest Village I project and came a little over a month before that July contribution to Palmer.

How do things appear now?

As the calendar turned over to 2006, things started to get interesting. In May of that year, Palmer would be up for re-election to his fifth term as Mayor. Campaign contributions really picked up.

There must have been a big fundraiser on March 15, 2006 because the ELEC reports are filled with contributions with that date. Lots of contractors and vendors and developers who were doing or wanted to do business with the city show up in the reports, but one in particular stands out: NDK General Contractors, LLC of Vineland.

NDK was formed by three sisters, Nicole, Davina and Kathleen Kemenash. The registered address for the business was 1512 East Wheat Road, Vineland. If that sounds familiar, it should. Kahan registered several of his development LLC’s to that same address.

NDK gave Palmer $1000 on March 15. So did each of the three sisters. Remember the law about contributions from LLC’s? That’s $4000 in contributions to be apportioned amongst the three of them. If divided equally, they are each just a little more than halfway to the $2600 individual limit for political contributions. Oh, and back on July 20, 2005, NDK gave Palmer $1000.

Back to March 15, 2006, five employees of NDK General Contracting also gave $1000 each to Palmer’s campaign. While it is entirely possible that these people gave freely of their own money, how probable is it?
How likely that an office manager, two secretaries, an estimator and a consultant from a construction firm in Vineland, NJ really care who gets elected in Trenton?  The office manager, by the way, had given a previous donation to Palmer. Although not listed as being affiliated with NDK in the reports for that contribution, Lisa Bancia gave a $1000 contribution to the Palmer campaign on July 20, 2005. That is the third contribution of $1000 to Palmer on that particular date. One from Tara, one from NDK and one from Ms. Bancia.

On one day, $9000 in contributions to Doug Palmer’s re-election campaign came from one company, its owners and employees. It’s not what it appears like. Right?

Office manager Lisa Bancia gave another $1000 to Palmer on May 6, 2006. This put her over the limit and Palmer’s campaign reportedly refunded her the $400 in excess contributions. This was part of another wave of contributions to Palmer’s campaign that appear to have come from/through NDK. Besides Bancia, the three sisters who formed the company each gave $1000 again, as did NDK General Contractors itself. That’s $8000 in contributions which puts the three ladies over the limit if apportioned equally. The estimator gave another $1000. That’s $6000 more that definitely came through NDK.

There were also three woman who each gave $1000 and who all list addresses in Vineland. The report does not show their occupation or employer information (as required by law). Hmmm. That doesn’t appear quite right.

Election Day was May 9 that year. On May 10, Palmer’s campaign report shows that one of the secretaries at NDK gave another $1000.

Tara wasn’t keeping its checkbook closed either. In November of 2005, Gino Melone received another $200 from the construction management firm. Melone also received $250 from Tara on April 17, 2006.  Well within the contribution limits, but again a violation of the LLC's can't contribute rule.

On May 6, a gentleman by the name of Keith Karmitian (hard to make out the handwriting on the report) gave $1000 to Palmer’s campaign. This was interesting because the address given is in Philadelphia. In fact, it is the same address listed for a $1000 contribution to then Councilman At Large Paul Pintella’s re-election campaign that came from Scott Kahan who listed his occupation as “Developer”. It appears that Scott is the son ofRobert Kahan and that Scott works with his father. (If you go to the Tara Developers website, contact us page, there are links to contact Robert, Scott and a “Keith” as well as a couple of other individuals.)

The Scott Kahan contribution to Pintella’s campaign is dated May 24, 2006. There was a runoff for the at-large council seats that year so the campaigning (and fundraising) continued for another month.

Robert Kahan, a “Developer”, also gave Pintella’s campaign $1000 on May 24, 2006.

Funny thing, NDK General Contractors and President/Owner Nicole Kemenash also contributed $1000 each to Pintella on that same date, May 24, 2006.

Pintella and the rest of the Palmer slate (Manny Segura, Cordelia Staton) went on to win the runoff election in June of 2006. You can view a timeline of all this here.

In July of 2006, the Pennington Housing project (Titus Housing, LLC, a Kahan company) got underway. The Canal Plaza project started in earnest in June of 2007. The Southwest Village II (Passaic Street) and Catherine Graham Square (Monmouth Management at Trenton) projects got underway in April and July of 2008.

NDK General Contractor was involved in the Pennington Housing project according to construction liens filed by suppliers waiting to get paid. Some of the liens were satisfied but one wasn’t. The contractor letits state license lapse at the end of 2006. It has not kept up with its annual corporate filings to the state either and is currently suspended pending reinstatement.

Kahan formed Tara Developers II, LLC in 2010 and maintains an office on West State Street in Trenton. Kahan had, in the meantime, changed all of his registered addresses for the various project related LLC’s from Vineland to the Trenton address.

We don’t know what the FBI will find through their investigation. We know what the situation appears to be. In an effort to secure at least five redevelopment deals, Mr. Kahan and friends made at least $30,000 in campaign contributions to Doug Palmer, Paul Pintella and Gino Melone between May 2002 and May 2006.

In Alex Zdan’s article published on December 31, Doug Palmer is quoted as saying, “It doesn’t involve me or my administration.”

He may be right. But that isn’t the way it appears.


Anonymous said...

Thank God they're finally going after Palmer, that slimy snake.

Old Mill Hill said...

For the record, there is no indication that "they're finally going after Palmer."
While the appearance may be one of impropriety, that remains to be seen.

Anonymous said...

It had been the City’s policy that developers would bear the cost of water utility infrastructure (water mains, fire hydrants, customer service pipes) and also would furnish and pay for the labor and materials necessary to construct the improvements. For at least two City projects during the time frame mentioned, the Palmer administration, contrary to the standing policy, paid the developer for the costs of the water utility improvements. This may not have been related to any of the reported contributions, but to at least some observers it appears that it may have been.

Old Mill Hill said...

Very interesting point on the water service costs.
Would this show up in the authorizing ordinances passed by the governing body?
We do have an OPRA request in for those documents.

Anonymous said...

Payments were not made directly to the developer. The project was approved with the developer responsible for providing the labor, equipment and materials at the developers expense. Then when it was time to install the facilities, the Palmer administration hired a contractor on an "emergency" basis to provide the labor and equipment to install the material provided by the utility. In another instance the Palmer administration ordered utility personnel to provide the labor, equipment and materials.

Old Mill Hill said...

Hmm. In theory, if we knew the name of the contractor hired on an emergency basis or the time frame for the work, we could OPRA the records of that.

Similarly, a time frame/location of the installation done by TWW personnel would allow us to OPRA the records for same.