A number of Toms River township council members this week called on Councilman Daniel Rodrick to pay over $4,000 in legal fees after a lawsuit he filed alleging corruption at town hall was dismissed by a Superior Court judge.
The township accrued $4,477 in legal bills to defend against Rodrick’s suit, which accused Mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill and fellow council members of violating the township’s pay-to-play ordinance by appointing Assemblyman Gregory P. McGuckin (R-Ocean) as director of the Department of Law.
In dismissing the lawsuit with prejudice, Judge Marlene Lynch Ford acknowledged that it is unusual for such a complaint to be dismissed, but Rodrick’s claim lacked standing and merit. The crux of the suit centered around the law firm of Dasti, Murphy, McGuckin, Ulaky, Koutsouris & Connors, of which McGuckin is a partner, donating to the campaigns of Hill and several Republican council members prior to his appointment. Ford ruled, however, that the township followed the law when hiring McGuckin. Specifically, because the contract with McGuckin was not a professional services contract, but instead a mayoral appointment to head a department, there was no requirement for the township to re-advertise a request for proposals since the Dasti law firm was already part of a pool of attorneys approved to perform legal work for the municipal government at an hourly rate.
“Clearly, as a matter of law, the fact that Mr. McGuckin or [the] Dasti Law Firm made contributions to candidates falls within the exception for a fair and open process,” Ford wrote in a 13-page decision.
Rodrick claimed in his complaint that the position was not properly advertised, an allegation that was rejected by Ford. Rodrick has frequently criticized McGuckin’s appointment throughout the year, citing the donations and often bringing up the fact that he has never attended a township council meeting.
In what has become a common occurrence at Toms River council meetings, Rodrick and the remainder of the council, split 4-2 between Republicans and Democrats, engaged in a round of back-and-forth criticisms this week. Several council members called on Rodrick to pay the legal bill for the case, which was defended by Kevin Riordan, a Toms River attorney. Rodrick voted against a motion to pay Riordan, saying he, too, donated to Hill’s campaign and the township’s in-house legal staff could have handled the matter.
Township Attorney Ken Fitzsimmons, at his last meeting before retirement, said that he and his deputy, Anthony Merlino, held a lengthy discussion on whether they would be able to defend the case themselves. In the end, the pair determined it would not be ethical to represent certain members of the township council against another.
“We believed we had an ethical conflict, we had a duty to disclose that, and recommended that the town secure outside counsel,” said Fitzsimmons. “That decision was generally influenced between Mr. Merlino and I. No one asked us to make that decision, no one pressured us to, we did so because we felt we were fulfilling our ethical responsibility.”
Councilman Matthew Lotano opened a salvo of criticisms of Rodrick, alleging he filed the lawsuit only to garner news headlines.
“He used our tax dollars to buy headlines knowing full-well it was frivolous,” said Lotano. “I, for one, am demanding Councilman Rodrick write a check back to the township … to cover the cost of this frivolous lawsuit and apologize for these ridiculous allegations to all of us and our taxpayers.”
“In eighteen years as a lawyer I’ve never been sued in my life and then find myself in a lawsuit on the township council,” said Councilman Terrance Turnbach, one of the council’s two Democratic members. “It was baseless and frivolous from the outset. The taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for that.”
Rodrick said at the meeting he still believes his complaint was justified.
“At the end of the day, we have an Assemblyman with 30 public jobs who donated to each of your campaigns, and to the mayor, who was given a new contract for a new job that was never advertised,” said Rodrick, adding that he had “the taxpayers’ interest in mind.”
“That contract is going to cost a tremendous money over the years,” he said. “But then again, you wanted the political show and you have the political show.”
Turnbach also criticized Rodrick for claiming Ford’s decision was politically motivated. Ford is a former Democratic assemblywoman and was appointed by Gov. Jon Corzine as Ocean County prosecutor. But Ford is also well-respected by colleagues on both sides of the political aisle, maintained a positive relationship with the all-GOP freeholder board during her term as prosecutor and was appointed Ocean County’s first female assignment judge by Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Turnbach called Ford a person of honor who Rodrick could learn from.
Ultimately, the council, minus Rodrick, voted in favor of paying Riordan for his services as defense counsel in the matter.