Saturday, February 07, 2015

This is how our failing city operates

The headline read “Trenton union leader files suit against the city to have $40k returned after contract dispute”.

The story was about Dave Tallone, the head of the city’s largest union and his quest to have $40,000 returned to him by the city of Trenton.

Tallone had been charged with 15 counts of forgery and fraud in 2011 but the charges were dropped in 2013.  At that time, Tallone paid the city of Trenton $40,000 in case the city decided to pursue a civil case against him in the matter. They haven’t and he asked for his money back but hasn’t received it. So, Tallone filed a lawsuit.

Now, at first, this might seem only fitting and right. He put the money up in trust, it wasn’t needed and now he wants it back.

Unfortunately, it just isn’t that simple.  There are a lot of questions that need to be answered.

If you are not familiar with or have forgotten the background in this matter, here’s a refresher:

From at least 2006 through 2011, Dave Tallone was paid by the City of Trenton to provide food for the Annual Spring Litter march. State law prohibits municipal employees and officers from doing business with their employer so Tallone used other names in an effort to cover his tracks.

Most often, he seemed to use the name of Adele Wright. Ms. Wright is Mr. Tallone’s sister. He also used the name of a Joseph Gresko who is believed to be a relative and/or friend of Tallone’s. The addresses used on the documents pertaining to the contracts were sometimes Tallone’s home address or that of his son (who has since passed away).

It had to have been common knowledge throughout City Hall he was doing this. It was Tallone who showed up to serve the food each day (presumably while still collecting his daily pay from the City of Trenton).

The payments for the food were deposited into bank accounts in the city employee credit union, of which Mr. Tallone was the president. One check was actually endorsed by the payee and then endorsed again with a signature reading “Dave Tallone.”

In the fall of 2011, Mr. Tallone was charged by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s office with 15 counts of forgery and fraud.  The charges were dropped in 2013 because the MCPO could not get Tallone’s sister to travel from her home in Nevada to Trenton to testify.

Tallone got his job back and was given his back pay. The day after the charges were dropped, he gave the city a check for $40,000. Ostensibly this was to be held “in trust” pending the result of any civil action the city might initiate in place of the failed criminal case.

Now Tallone wants his money back. The city hasn’t yet given it to him, so he’s going to court to get it.

Too many questions, too few answers
We have never quite grasped the whole way the case was handled from the outset. Nor have we understood how it went on for several years before being brought to the attention of the authorities.

From the New Jersey State Statutes:
40:69A-163. Interest in contracts or jobs forbidden
No officer or employee elected or appointed in any municipality shall be interested directly or indirectly in any contract or job for work or materials, or the profits thereof, to be furnished or performed for the municipality, and no such officer or employee shall be interested directly or indirectly in any contract or job for work or materials or the profits thereof, to be furnished or performed, for any person operating any interurban railway, street railway, gas works, water works, electric light or power plant, heating plant, telegraph line, telephone exchange, or other public utility within the territorial limits of such municipality.
L.1950, c.210, p. 509, s. 17-14, eff. June 8, 1950.
There seems to be no disagreement that it was Mr. Tallone who got the contracts. The Mercer County Prosecutor states, in a faxed letter accompanying Tallone’s legal filing that “Mr. Tallone maintains that any service under vendor contracts with the City of Trenton were [sic] provided in full and at the lowest bid.”

That’s pretty clear. Tallone got the jobs. It is also pretty clear that the by using the names of other individuals and effort was being made to circumvent the law.

The whole idea of Tallone having submitted the lowest quote is also questionable.

A purchase order issued for the April 2011 event was in the amount of $12,000 for “unlimited” lunches to be served. It was made out not in Mr. Tallone’s name. It was made out in the name of Joseph Gresko but at the address of Mr. Tallone’s residence.

Documents obtained from the city show two other price quotes for providing the lunches for the April 2011 litter march. One was from Heavenly Ham in Mercer Mall for 3000 lunches at $7.00 each ($21,000). The second was from Fred & Pete’s Catering in Mercerville. Again, 3000 lunches but at $6.00 per ($18,000). Note, the number “3000” not “unlimited.”

Why were two of the quotes for 3000 lunches but Mr. Tallone’s was for an “unlimited” amount?  Was it to make the bid appear even lower?

Who requested the quotes is not clear but we do know this, the entire Litter March was coordinated and paid for out of the Department of Public Works. Mr. Tallone, as an employee of the Sewer Utility, works in a division of the Department of Public Works. Is it possible Tallone was given access to the other quotes so he could come in with a lower price?

If you do the math, Tallone’s price wasn’t the lowest.

The city provided a roster of 37 “teams” representing 1904 people expected to participate in the litter march. The list noted some “no shows”, dropping the count to 1857 plus "staff". If we round the number up to 2000 people in attendance it’s a full third less than the 3000 lunches in the other quotes. If you divide Tallone’s “lowest” bid of $12,000 by a maximum 2000 attendees it comes out to $6.00 per lunch served. That’s the same amount as the well known Fred and Pete’s Deli was going to charge. It is very unlikely, given the list of 1857 attendees “plus staff” that the number of lunches served reached 2000. Let’s assume the 1857 participants were augmented by 43 “staff”.  That brings the total of lunches to 1900. Dividing the $12,000 by 1900 brings the price per lunch to $6.32, higher than the Fred and Pete’s quote.

Interestingly, documents show that Tallone was paid in full for the unlimited lunches on March 29, nearly three full weeks prior to the event. This is another irregularity. Vendors are not usually paid in full prior to delivering the goods or services. We can understand a partial payment to cover the upfront costs of materials, but full payment before delivery should never have occurred. Yet the purchase order was signed off by the then acting director of Public Works, Ralph Burzachiello. There was never a full accounting of the number of lunches served. What if the event had been cancelled due to weather? Would the city have gone back to Tallone and asked for the money back?

A copy of another PO for $8,500 was obtained from the city. This PO was for supplying and serving of “unlimited” continental breakfast for all staff and volunteers the day of the litter march.

The accompanying handwritten quote was broken down into two items. The continental breakfast for an estimated 2500 people at $2.00 per ($5000) and to supply and serve “unlimited” lunch for staff and participants estimated at 700 people extra at $5.00 per head ($3500). This PO was made out to Adele Wright and the address given was that of the condo where Tallone’s son lived.

We know that Ms. Wright was living in Las Vegas at the time, so how come her name is on the PO? Why wasn’t Mr. Gresko’s name used? Was this an attempt to splinter the quotes so that the cost fell below the minimum bid threshold? It should also be noted that this quote, requisition and purchase order were all dated AFTER the April 18 Litter March. So, after the before the fact payment of $12,000, there was an after the fact billing and payment for breakfast and MORE LUNCHES. Sounds like someone was helping himself to healthy seconds from the City's plate! How is it no one in the city finance offices caught that?

Another anomaly in this story is the lack of documentation regarding the vendor providing the food to the city. State law requires any individual or entity to doing business with the local unit to provide a Certificate of Registration. There appear to have been none sought or obtained for Mr. Tallone et al.

When copies of the 1099 forms issued to the vendor(s) for tax reporting purposes were requested, the city stated none had been issued because no Tax ID numbers had been provided. Another violation of law but the city went ahead and repeatedly engaged Mr. Tallone in contracting for the food for the litter march, year after year without reporting his income.

Where were the controls? Who was ignoring or directing to be ignored the most basic rules for purchasing and payment by a municipal government?

The highest levels of management had to know this was going on. How else could so many rules have been overlooked in allowing Tallone to get the contracts?

In 2011, it was acting Public Works Director Ralph Burzachiello who signed the PO for the

In 2010, then Public Works Director Eric Jackson signed some of the paperwork submitted under Gresko’s name. 

Why hasn’t the MCPO investigated the city side of this issue?

Tallone acknowledges he did the work, yet the PO’s were issued under the names of others. Isn’t that in and of itself fraud? Why was the MCPO’s case so dependent upon the testimony of Ms. Wright that it couldn’t proceed without her? What was Mr. Gresko’s role in all of this? Was the use of his name in combination with different addresses just another attempt to hide the real fact that Tallone was getting the contracts illegally?

A big if
If Mr. Tallone, Mr. Gresko and Ms. Wright actually had some sort of catering business, it was not properly registered with the state. They didn’t provide proper tax identification numbers to the city. Due to Mr. Tallone’s obvious and acknowledged involvement, they are banned from doing work for the city anyway.

How did any of this escape the notice of the department directors and others who had to sign off on the paperwork?

With all of the above unanswered questions it is somewhat understandable that, on the advice of counsel, Mr. Tallone would pay the city $40,000. It seems pretty obvious that any civil action taken by the city against Tallone would result in him having to make restitution for the money gained from his prohibited contracts.

Or does Mr. Tallone think that the current administration would rather give back that $40,000 in the hopes of putting this story to rest without having to answer any of those pesky questions above?

Dave Tallone got his job back. He has reportedly received his back pay. Seems to us he has pretty much been made whole. Why shouldn’t he make restitution to the city for at least some of the money he received through the illegal contracts?

He should leave it as is and drop his lawsuit requesting the return of the money.

Or maybe it would be better for the matter to proceed, publicly, in the courts so the world can see and hear how the successive administrations in the City of Trenton have broken and ignored public contracting laws and how no one, including the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, has stepped up to take all the parties to task.