VINELAND – The future of the city’s investigation into the so-called Four Corners downtown development project here could be decided in a courtroom on Friday.
A Superior Court judge will hear testimony from city officials on issues that include whether an investigative panel formed to audit the project’s finances can even continue operating.
At the heart of matter is politics: The terms of the five City Council members who authorized the panel expire at 12 p.m. on Jan. 1. Two of those City Council members – Peter Coccaro and Mayra Arroyo – make up the investigative panel. They both lost re-election bids this year.
An entirely new administration takes control of city government this week. No information was available on Sunday as to whether mayor-elect Ruben Bermudez and his City Council slate want to proceed with the investigation and audit.
The current dilemma is prompted by Four Corners developer Hans Lampart, who has called the investigation a “political year witch hunt.”
Lampart and his Eastern Pacific Development LLC company filed a multi-count complaint in Superior Court last week to essentially stop the investigation. Listed as defendants in the complaint are the municipality, Coccaro, Arroyo, and other City Council members Louis Cresci, Edward Conrow and Douglas Albrecht.
Superior Court Judge David Krell issued an order on Friday temporarily banning the city from taking further investigative action or issuing any subpoenas.
The complaint followed a memo Lampart sent to Mayor Robert Romano on Dec. 7. In the memo, Lampart wrote that the city has “no standing nor authority to continue this audit and it certainly has no authority to compel any participation by myself, my records, nor entity or persons that participated in this project on my behalf. Any attempt by this committee to do so will be met with swift and appropriate legal action.”
The $40 million Four Corners project at East and Landis avenues was supposed to create a commercial gateway to the downtown business district. The only part of the project to be completed thus far was the renovation of the Landis Theater Performing Arts Center. That project cost $10 million. Part of the financing came from about $4 million worth of Urban Enterprise Zone funds. UEZ money comes from state sales tax revenue.
The Four Corners project was authorized under the administration led by Mayor Perry Barse. Barse’s administration was ousted by Romano and his City Council slate in 2008.
While Lampart contends the audit is politically motivated, City Council members say they only want to clear up perceived problems involving funding for the Four Corners project.
In June, City Council awarded a $32,000 contract to the Burlington County firm of Holman & Frenia. The firm is performing what City Council said is a complete audit of the Four Corners project. City officials said the auditors contend Lampart is not cooperating with the audit.
On Wednesday, City Council voted to increase the contract by an additional $25,000. The authorizing resolution also extended the end date of the contract from Dec. 26 to Oct. 23.
Lampart contends in documents filed in Superior Court that:
- Any subpoenas issued by the investigative committee should be quashed because that committee ceases to legally exist on Tuesday.
- The resolution approved by City Council on Wednesday should be struck down because a “lame-duck governing body cannot bind a successor governing body.”
- He is seeking temporary restraints by the court to prevent any “irreparable harm” the investigation may cause.
“In these economic times, there are plenty developers, but not much in way of development projects,” the complaint reads. “Accordingly, the stigma of an unfounded investigation such as the one at hand could be ruinous to Hans Lampart and Eastern Pacific Development.”
Lampart and his company are being represented by the local law firm of Testa Heck Scrocca & Testa.
Attorney Michael Testa Sr. is senior partner in the firm. He also is president of the Landis Theater’s board of director.