Easter controversy over no-show witness scuttles settlement talks in developer suit vs. Morristown mayor, defense tells judge

Morristown town Planner Phil Abramson, left, and Superior Court Judge Noah Franzblau, right, listen as Joseph Fiorenzo, attorney for the Silverman Group, prepares a question, April 1, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Morristown’s town planner was in the hot seat Monday, grilled by a lawyer for a developer suing the mayor and municipality.

But it was a no-show witness who created the most sizzle in Superior Court Judge Noah Franzblau’s courtroom.

Attorneys accused each other of Easter Sunday skullduggery — and in the process, appeared to scuttle discussions about a Morristown settlement with the Silverman Group.

“There is absolutely no prospect of settling this case!” said attorney Ronald Israel, who is defending Dougherty and the town against Silverman claims of mayoral interference.

Blake Silverman testified last week that his proposed office project at 54-74 South St. was favored by Big Four accounting firm Deloitte in 2018 for its new regional headquarters–until Dougherty and his administration got behind a competing proposal. Silverman is suing for damages.

Retired Deloitte executive John Connolly is considered so central to Silverman’s story that both sides subpoenaed him to testify. Connolly had booked a flight from Florida, according to Silverman’s lawyer, Joseph Fiorenzo, who was eager to put him on the stand on Monday.

But at 11:45 pm on Sunday, Fiorenzo said, a Deloitte lawyer named Michael Rich informed his team that Connolly wasn’t coming–and Rich admonished the plaintiffs to direct any future Connolly inquiries to him. And by the way, Rich purportedly advised, out-of-state residents cannot be subpoenaed to testify in New Jersey civil trials.

Fiorenzo hinted that Dougherty’s legal team tipped off the Deloitte lawyer, after Fiorenzo had mentioned Connolly’s impending testimony during a settlement conversation over the weekend.

Connolly had been willing to testify for either side, as long as his travel expenses were covered, asserted Fiorenzo.  But when Blake Silverman reached out to Connolly on Monday morning to ask why he backed out, Connolly indicated “there were veiled threats made to him to induce him not to show up here today,” said Fiorenzo.

“That is very disturbing, inappropriate, and essentially tampering with the ability to call a witness who both sides have subpoenaed,” said Fiorenzo, who insisted on putting all of this on the record in open court.

Israel countered that Silverman’s reaching out to Connolly was an “unethical communication,” and he expressed curiosity about what compensation Silverman’s side may have offered Connolly for his testimony.

Israel acknowledged speaking on Sunday with Deloitte’s attorney after learning Connolly was scheduled to testify. But he characterized Fiorenzo’s tampering contention as hearsay, and said he spent three hours Sunday preparing his cross-examination of Connolly. Fiorenzo’s disclosure of settlement talks was “gratuitous,” Israel added.

The dueling lawyers said they would investigate these side matters in the future. Keen to keep the trial moving forward, Judge Franzblau then swore in Morristown Planner Phil Abramson, who spent about four hours testifying.

‘GOLDSMITH AND THE PARKING AUTHORITY ****ED US’

Pressed repeatedly by Fiorenzo for evidence of Dougherty’s direct involvement, Abramson insisted most of his interactions were with town Administrator Jillian Barrick.

“I don’t recall specific conversations where (Dougherty) asked me to do specific things,” testified Abramson, as Dougherty listened, eyes cast downward, from the defense table.

In a June 12, 2018, meeting, Barrick told Abramson that Deloitte “is not going to South Street,” according to the planner’s notes from the meeting.

Morristown town Planner Phil Abramson on the witness stand in civil trial, April 1, 2024. The Silverman Group is suing Morristown and Mayor Tim Dougherty, alleging the mayor killed a prospective
development deal with Deloitte. in 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Dougherty and Barrick supported a Speedwell Avenue site for Deloitte’s relocation from Parsippany. Abramson acknowledged their efforts on behalf of that site.

Partners in the Speedwell proposal–SJP Properties and Scotto Properties–had hoped to secure parking spaces for their project in the Headquarters Plaza garage across the street.

Dougherty and Barrick traveled to New York to lobby a partner at Olnick & Fisher, owners of Headquarters Plaza, for the parking, Abramson said.

“Didn’t we talk about another pressure point to use with him?” Barrick emailed to Abramson and planning board Attorney John Inglesino on April 3, 2024. 2018.
What pressure point? Fiorenzo asked Abramson.

“I don’t recall,” the planner said.

Barrick also asked the Morristown Parking Authority (MPA) to allocate spaces for the Speedwell project in the Dalton garage on Cattano Avenue.

For his South Street proposal, Silverman had offered to assume the cost of erectingod an MPA parking deck behind the Morristown Post Office, in exchange for 200 spaces there, according to his lawyer.

The MPA’s willingness to accommodate Silverman infuriated Dougherty, according to a series of text messages from the mayor to Abramson on July 13, 2023. One of the messages referred to longtime MPA Attorney Robert Goldsmith.

“Seems Goldsmith and the parking authority —-ed us,” Dougherty texted.

Three days later, John Connolly of Deloitte emailed Barrick to say the company wanted to quietly walk away from Morristown.

A subsequent sequence of texts from Dougherty showed his engagement with Steve Pozycki of SJP Properties: “Talked to Steve…It’s getting heated… Blake out of control.”

Under questioning, Abramson also acknowledged discussions about changing town zoning to make the Speedwell site “more approvable” by town boards. Fiorenzo asked if that constituted spot zoning, an illegal practice. Abramson described such talks simply as part of periodic, town-wide zoning updates.

Fiorenzo also prodded Abramson about whether the mayor legally could veto Deloitte’s venue preferences — or if that was the purview of the planning and zoning boards. The mayor could raise technical points, Abramson said.

“But he can’t bar them” from a given location? Fiorenzo asked.

“Under the statute, there is no room for that,” the planner answered.

In 2022, Deloitte moved into another Morristown location–the new M Station office complex at Spring and Morris streets. SJP Properties and Scotto Properties were the developers.

Dougherty, Barrick and Goldsmith are anticipated to testify at the trial.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I hope this trial exposes Dougherty & his cronies at the Town. Unfortunately, the damage is already done and we have huge office buildings that will be there forever, like Headquarters which everyone complains about. How is this different? We will never know how Silvermans project would have integrated onto South St.

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