Morristown municipal Attorney Vijayant Pawar is a town employee, not a contractor, and therefore he is not required to report campaign contributions under the town’s 2008 anti- “pay to play” ordinance, a judge ruled today.
Superior Court Assignment Judge B. Theodore Bozonelis dismissed a lawsuit by Morristown Republican Vice Chairman Richard Babcock and three others who sought to compel the town attorney to disclose any contributions to Mayor Tim Dougherty’s campaign last year.
“I think Mr. Babcock and his co-horts owe an apology to Mayor Dougherty, the town council and the taxpayers for wasting their resources on such a frivolous matter,” said Vij Pawar after the hour-long hearing in Morristown.
The municipal attorney said the plaintiffs easily could have checked his contributions on campaign forms that the Mayor filed with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. “Apparently, that logic escaped them,” the lawyer said.
Praising the town attorney’s character, the Mayor said the town was lucky to have Vij Pawar as a $95,000-a-year employee. The lawyer works long hours in town hall that would cost much more if he were billing his time as a contractor, said the Mayor, contending the lawsuit was a failed attempt to embarrass his administration.
“This was not about right or wrong. This was about trying to smear someone’s character,” Mayor Dougherty said after the hearing.
Richard Babcock, a former council candidate, said he has nothing against Vij Pawar. He joined the lawsuit “over the principle that this (pay to play) ordinance has a loophole,” he said.
Morristown voters passed a referendum in 2008 that bars vendors from doing municipal business for four years if they donate more than $300 to a local candidate or official.
Alan Zakin, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, argued in court that Vij Pawar’s stance violated the spirit of the pay to play ordinance–meant to dispel “perceptions of improper influence” in town hall–as well as the Mayor’s campaign pledge of “openness and transparency.”
Citing the municipal attorney’s private practice, Alan also questioned whether Vij Pawar really was a full-time town employee.
Thomas Scrivo, an attorney for the defendants, said the ordinance and the state public contracts law that enables it both refer to contractors, not municipal employees.
“This is a case where you start with a very small false allegation and you build on it,” he said. The plaintiffs “knew that to trigger the ordinance, (Vij Pawar) has to have a professional services contract–and he doesn’t. It’s plain and simple.”
The Mayor and council also were named as defendants; the Mayor said he does not yet know the town’s legal bill for defending them.
As for who was underwriting the lawsuit, Richard Babcock said he did not know. Nor did he profess to know much about fellow plaintiffs Kemesh Patel and Frances Kennedy; he said he was approached about their suit and joined it because he wanted the same answers.
The other plaintiff, former GOP council candidate Ed France, said he did not know who funded the lawsuit, either.
“It’s a sad day for the taxpayers of Morristown,” Ed said of the ruling. “We created an ordinance to avoid these kinds of problems, and (town officials) are finding ways to sidestep the ordinance.”
Complying would have set a precedent that might compromise other town employees, according to Vij Pawar. Things could get uncomfortable for employees who backed the wrong candidate, if they were forced to disclose contributions locally.
The judge said the town could rewrite its pay to play ordinance to address situations like this one, if it so desired.
Richard Babcock submitted such an amendment to the town council this month. But no amendments are possible until later next year, according to Linda Carrington, a resident who helped spearhead the 2008 referendum. By law, she said, referendums cannot be revised for three years.
Linda expressed support for the Mayor’s hiring of Vij Pawar as a full-time employee.
“It was not done to circumvent the law,” she said. “They appointed the attorney to know what their legal bills are.”