ATLANTIC CITY — The law firm leading a state takeover of the city has billed taxpayers about $280,000 so far, with former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa requesting about $80,000 for three months of work.
Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi, based in West Orange, Essex County, billed the state $201,333 for November through January, according to invoices the state released Friday through an Open Public Records Act request.
Chiesa’s $400-per-hour fees weren’t included. But Chiesa, who is leading the takeover of the city’s finances, said he’s billed about $80,000 for November through January. He said his invoices are still under state review.
“The other bills are still working their way through the process, like many of the other bills the state has to deal with,” he said.
Chiesa and his team’s hourly rates have drawn sharp criticism from city and state officials — and from public-safety unions, which could see their staffing levels slashed and compensation cut under unilateral contract changes Chiesa implemented. Judges have put those cuts on hold until hearings on the unions’ lawsuits.
“The dollar amount being spent on a firm to help stabilize Atlantic City’s finances is staggering,” Matthew Rogers, president of Police Benevolent Association Local 24, the city’s police union, said in a statement. “We implore the state to work with us to get a deal done, to get control back to local leaders so we can stop outrageous payments like what we see here.”
Chiesa, who has called the unions’ lawsuits “money grabs,” defended his firm’s pay by citing a $93 million savings in a tax settlement with Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and Hard Rock International’s $300 million investment in the former Trump Taj Mahal casino.
“I think in the time that we’ve been here we’ve had important successes on behalf of the city,” Chiesa said.
He said Borgata and its parent company, MGM Resorts International, are “sophisticated business entities” with “very outstanding attorneys” that made negotiations a heavy lift for his firm.
“That took a tremendous amount of effort and required really first-flight legal talent from the folks that were working on that case,” he said.
He added the unions’ lawsuits are creating more costs and billable hours.
The law firm’s work in Atlantic City goes beyond negotiations with stakeholders, cutting union contracts and defending those cuts in court. Attorneys oversee all the city’s boards and commissions, “from the library to the Tree Shade Commission to the Arts Commission,” Mayor Don Guardian recently said.
“They are now getting a copy of the agenda, approving the agenda. They are getting a copy of the minutes, approving the minutes,” Guardian said in February. “Lots of billable hours.”
The state redacted details of the firm’s work from the invoices because of attorney-client privilege, the Attorney General’s Office said. There were 22 members of the firm who billed hours.
The state Department of Community Affairs tapped Chiesa, a close ally of Gov. Chris Christie, in November to lead a takeover of the city’s troubled finances.
The state hired Chiesa’s entire firm as well.
In addition to Chiesa’s $400-per-hour rate, partners at the law firm can bill $350 per hour, associates can charge $240 per hour and paralegals can bill $90 per hour for their work, according to the firm’s retention agreement with the Office of the Attorney General.
The politically connected firm is formerly known as Wolff & Samson. A former partner at the firm is David Samson, who was recently sentenced to one year of home confinement for having United Airlines run a special flight for him to vacation in South Carolina while he was chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
“The governor handing over the city to a political insider without a transparent plan is like leaving your home without locking the door, and it looks like we just got robbed,” said Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic.
Brown has been critical of Chiesa’s hourly rate and has called for a public financial-recovery plan.