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Delco’s Legal Spending Spree: Outside Attorney Spending Now Eight Times Higher Than Prior Administration

This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty

Delaware County’s spending on outside attorneys last year totaled more than $3 million, reaching new highs for a trend that began in 2020 when Democrats took the majority on the county council.

The numbers mark a sharp divergence from 2019, the last year in which Republicans maintained a majority on the county council, where spending on outside legal help totaled $402,000.

Since then, that category of spending has skyrocketed by almost eight times as much.

2019 — $402,000

2020 — $2.2 mill.

2021 — $2.3 mill.

2022 — $3.17 mill.

When Broad + Liberty first reported on this issue looking at the jump from 2019 to 2020 spending, the county said it was affected by the pandemic as well as other one-off circumstances.

“Several significant litigation matters, along with unusual costs associated with the county-wide reassessment, the 2020 election and the organization of the new County Health Department contributed to the increase in legal costs,” county spokeswoman Adrienne Marofsky said at the time.

Then, when examining the 2021 spending, the county pointed the finger at the Republicans previously in power, saying the legal spending was for “a wide ranging set of issues, most of which had not been addressed by the previous administration,” according to County Solicitor Bill Martin.

He cited acquiring the largest park in the county via eminent domain, the recent county-wide reassessment, issues associated with the Aqua takeover of the Delcora wastewater management authority, restructuring union contracts, and the de-privatization of the county jail.

When questioned this year about the $3 million tab, Martin said, “Many of the items from past years remain active. The litigation to block Aqua’s sweetheart takeover of DELCORA continues, with the litigation proceeding on multiple fronts in the PUC, Commonwealth Court and Common Pleas court. The litigation related to the multiple abuse cases brought by former residents of the Juvenile Detention Center continues. All of these cases are triggered by events which occurred prior to the time when the current County Council took office.”

Martin did not answer a question about whether this level of outside legal assistance represented a new normal, or whether the county’s legal spending might wind down to previous levels.

Joy Schwartz, a Republican running for county council this year, isn’t buying Martin’s reasoning.

“This County Council uses our own tax dollars against us, those taxpayers who dare to ask basic questions about their agenda, and the costs are staggering,” Schwartz said. “The bottom line is their policies are unpopular and expensive. When people find out about it and complain at county meetings, this council hides behind its lawyers at great expense to the taxpayer. Solicitor Martin uses county council meetings as his bully pulpit to excoriate those who have the temerity to challenge the county’s actions. Blaming his predecessors is really not a good look for Mr. Martin, but in reality, it is likely the only explanation he has to offer.”

Schwartz recently won an open records appeal that allowed her access to count mail-in ballot envelopes, after the county had originally denied her request.

Some of the spending has drawn criticism from Republicans in the county, not only for the volume. In some instances, they say, it’s the kind of spending Democrats used to portray as politically corrupt.

For example, in 2019, former County Council Chairman Brian Zidek accused Republicans of crony spending, which he labeled a “corruption tax.”

“Democrat Brian Zidek said residents’ [sic] don’t get their money’s worth from the county because of ‘no-bid contracts going to people and companies that contribute to politicians and political parties.’” according to a WHYY report from the time.

Ballard Spahr, the second largest recipient of the legal spending in 2022 was paid $426,000, a total that is higher than the total third-party attorney spending for all of 2019, the last year Republicans had the majority. Democratic Councilwoman Christine Reuther, who is seeking a second term on council this fall, is a former employee of Ballard Spahr, and the firm held a fundraiser for her in 2019.

Ballard’s chair is also the husband of Democrat Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, whose congressional Fifth District encompasses all of Delaware County. Scanlon was also “Pro Bono Counsel” for a time at the firm.

“The rhetoric around their original election, 2019 and 2020, where the incoming Democrats proclaimed that they were going to do government differently than the prior Republican administration — and yet when I look at that spending, what I see is they spent eight times more in general on legal fees than the Republicans did,” said Jeff Jones, another Republican challenger for the county council. “The question is very simple: is that really better than what the Republicans were doing for the hardworking families of Delaware County?”

The firm Duane Morris banked over a quarter of a million dollars in billings to the county, and the former chairman of the Delaware County Democratic Party, David Landau, was previously a partner there, but Martin tried to shoot that down.

“[N]ote that David Landau (the presumed “former chairman” that you referenced) is no longer a partner at Duane Morris. In fact, a review of that firm’s affiliation would demonstrate just as many prominent Republicans (e.g. William McSwaine [sic] — former state-wide Republican candidate) as Democrats,” Martin said. “An example of legal services continued from the prior administration would include Burnes White, which represented Fair Acres on significant litigation matters for years, and has continued in that role.”

Broad + Liberty pointed out that J. Manly Parks, also of Duane Morris, bills the county for election-law consulting, and that Parks’s resume includes highly partisan campaign work for Democrats such as former President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf.

Martin did not address the question as to whether this could be considered a conflict.

“The solicitor’s office seeks law firms and lawyers, appropriate for each specific representation. It specifically avoids asking about, or investigating, the political contribution history of any attorney or law firm,” Martin concluded.

(Editor’s note: Martin’s quote was lightly edited mainly for spacing and punctuation. No words were added or subtracted from the quote.)

The county does, however, specifically ask about and investigate the political contribution history of virtually every other contractor in its employ. According to the Delaware County Political Contribution Disclosure Form, available on the county website, under Section 6-12 of the Administrative Code of Delaware County, “Contractors under certain Covered Contracts are required to provide this Disclosure Form in connection with consideration” for the sought after work. Section 6-12 requires outside entities hired by the county to disclose all reportable political contributions made in the prior 24 months.

Since campaign finance reports for local committees remain unavailable for public review online, Broad + Liberty also inquired as to whether any of the outside firms or attorneys hired by the county are current or previous donors to the Delaware County Democratic Party, elected members of the Delaware County Council, or other local Delaware County Democratic committees. Neither Martin, nor the county spokesperson responded to this specific inquiry.

Frank Agovino, chair of the county Republicans, blasted the county’s response.

“The county administration’s claim that contracts such as these do not benefit the politically connected is preposterous on its face. The attorneys hired by the county are a who’s who of Democratic Party donors, officials, appointees and activists. However, more preposterous is that this fits a larger, irresponsible pattern of spending that is bound to result in double digit tax increases for Delco families who are already being crushed by high property taxes and inflation.”

As for 2023, the county now faces a number of lawsuits from former employees.

As Broad + Liberty was first to report in April, the county’s former assistant director of labor relations is suing the county alleging it fired him for investigating claims of bullying. Two former employees of the county jail filed lawsuits this year as well. Finally, county Republicans also filed suit against the county alleging that the council illegally granted itself new authority when it comes to naming members of the minority party to the county election board.

In West Chester, Council Calls Foul On Adult Baseball League

Members of the West Chester Adult Baseball League found themselves temporarily homeless in June after a borough council vote ousted them from their ballfield at Hoopes Park. Both sides say they are working toward finding a solution to the situation.

The West Chester Borough Council voted unanimously to revoke the league’s access to the park after reports of rowdy behavior from league teams, including urinating in the nearby woods and leaving trash behind after games.

The WCABL also allegedly built a concrete staircase in the park without proper approval; additionally, the league allegedly used municipal water to irrigate the field without getting permission first.

The league’s 2023 schedule shows every matchup having taken place at Hoopes Park until June 22. All matches through the end of July have been moved elsewhere.

Charlie Cooper, the league president, admitted the situation is “unfortunate.”

“We’re currently working with the borough regarding a new agreement,” Cooper told DVJournal.

“For the time being, all league games have been rescheduled at local fields with the hopes that a new agreement can be reached in the very near future,” he added. The league has about 240 adult players, he said.

Asked if the council seemed amenable to working out a new agreement, Cooper said, “It seems that way.”

“It’s not necessarily the council we’re dealing with right now; it’s the borough,” he admitted, saying the league and the borough are hammering out details of a revised agreement. “Then the council has to ratify it,” he said.

Cooper conceded claims that ballplayers using the nearby woods’ bathroom are accurate.

“I would say people have peed in the woods,” he said. He explained that the Porta Potty supplied by the council was not conveniently located. “They put it really far from the field.”

“That’s being resolved with adding a second Porta Potty near the field,” he added.

Michael Stefano, president of the West Chester Borough Council, said local officials are likewise hopeful about a new agreement shortly.

“West Chester Borough management has met with the Baseball League leadership in the days following the council meeting,” Stefano told DVJournal. “They have already come up with a plan that is being looked over by both sides.”

“We are hopeful to come up with an agreement that addresses all concerns so we can move forward,” he said.

The league was founded in 1956 and currently has eight teams on its roster.

After Firing, Upper Darby’s Rongione Sues Township Councilors, Seeks Damages

Vincent Rongione, whose status as the chief administrative officer of Upper Darby remains in legal limbo, filed a lawsuit earlier this month against the members of the township council who voted in June to fire him. He is seeking damages of no less than $50,000.

The 19-page complaint (99 pages when including exhibits) was filed in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas on Friday. The filing seeks a jury trial and alleges that the six council members violated the commonwealth’s sunshine laws and conspired against Rongione, the top appointee in Mayor Barbarann Keffer’s (D) administration. Rongione’s lawsuit also names the entire governmental body of the town council as a defendant, in addition to singling out the group of six by name.

“As a direct and proximate result of Defendants [sic] actions, Mr. Rongione suffered and continues to suffer emotional distress, mental anguish, embarrassment, harassment and the denial of his position as Chief Administrative Officer,” the complaint concludes. The filing also asserts that Rongione has “performed brilliantly” as the township’s CAO.

The bipartisan group of six on the township council voted for Rongione to forfeit his office at a council meeting on June 1, the culmination of a months-long battle over the township’s finances, in particular, questions over the roughly $20 million the township received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

Rongione and his attorney argue that the vote to fire him violated Pennsylvania’s sunshine laws, “because the stated purpose on the agenda did not provide the Township Council, the Township administration and members of the public with a clear understanding of what purpose and the known action item to be voted on.”

Despite the 6-5 vote by the council to relieve Rongione of his duties, he has continued to work while the members of the council are seeking a court order that would bar Rongione from continuing his duties or from entering township offices because of the forfeiture.

The group of six include Republican council members Lisa Faraglia, Meaghan Wagner, and Brian Andruszko. They are joined by Democrats Matt Silva, Council President Brian Burke, and Council Vice President Laura Wentz.

The other five Democrats on the town council have rallied behind Mayor Barbarann Keffer and Rongione after the conflict erupted in public at a council meeting in early February.

At that February meeting, Township Treasurer David David Haman (D) raised questions about the ARPA funds, saying that the end-of-month balances of some bank accounts had dropped below what would be expected. (By the nature of the township’s governance structure, the treasurer’s role is one more of oversight, and does not have direct access to the bank accounts).

Soon after, the group of six authorized an outside investigation into the ARPA funds and all the township’s finances. Keffer authorized her own third-party audit.

In mid-May, two weeks before the council voted to oust Rongione, Keffer released the results of the audit she commissioned, conducted by national accounting firm Marcum LLP.

“Marcum performed analyses of the actual bank balances of general fund bank accounts comparing them to the ARP funds from December 1, 2021 through February 7, 2022 and determined that the actual bank balances exceeded the ARP funds at all times,” the report said.

The group of six have cast doubt on this conclusion, saying that the investigation was incomplete because Marcum did not have access to all township accounts.

At the June 1 meeting, Councilwoman Wagner led the charge for Rongione’s dismissal, something Rongione highlighted in his complaint, but in doing so apparently incorrectly named Councilwoman Wentz.

Wagner laid out a theory that Rongione had moved monies in a “forfeiture” fund — an account the township shares in conjunction with the district attorney’s office that holds monies temporarily forfeited by persons who have been arrested and are still awaiting adjudication of their guilt or innocence.

“Wentz’s attack on Mr. Rongione was ghastly, ill-tempered and more importantly, according to the Township Solicitor Kilkenny’s office, stunningly wrong on the law.”

Democrat Councilmember Andrew Hayman agrees with Rongione that the vote to fire him violated the commonwealth’s sunshine laws, but also says the follow-up actions by the group of six have likely been illegal as well.

The decision by the group of six to seek a court order to remove Rongione “wasn’t even voted on in a public meeting,” Hayman said.

“Council is required to vote on litigation in a public meeting and that wasn’t done. It’s not on the agenda for tonight’s council meeting [Wednesday, July 6]. So it’s not something council could add on tonight either. I don’t know whose responsibility that is, whether that’s our council president, President Burke’s responsibility. But it is not on the agenda and was not on the agenda. And as such, I do not believe it is or was a legitimate, permissible action.”

Requests for comment emailed to all other members of the township council, Mayor Keffer, and Rongione were not returned.

Throughout most of the controversy, the group of six have maintained the investigation they sponsored will produce evidence that Rongione inappropriately moved township money without the necessary authorization from the council. The results of that investigation are expected this summer.

As for the legal action underway by the group of six, a conference is slated for Thursday before Delaware County Court of Common Pleas Judge Spiros Angelos to initiate a determination whether council had the authority to deem Rongione’s office forfeited without the mayor’s approval.

This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty.

Upper Darby Councilwoman Alleges Harassment Following Contentious Council Meeting

Upper Darby Councilwoman Meaghan Wagner filed a police report last Wednesday, alleging three people followed her from the Township Hall to her parked car, all the while shouting insults, slurs, and death wishes at the first-term council member.

Given that the three persons had reportedly just watched that evening’s council meeting, Wagner (R) believes the incident is evidence that passions and tempers continue to flare in the nearly six-month-long political battle between Mayor Barbarann Keffer (D) and a bipartisan group of council members who have launched an investigation into Keffer’s administration.

Broad + Liberty attempted to reach two of the three persons named in the report via Facebook Messenger. Because we can not be sure if the messages were received, and because no criminal charges have been filed as of yet, we are not naming the individuals in this report, and their names have been redacted in the police report provided to us by Wagner.

According to Wagner’s description in the police report, the cohort who followed her were two women and one man.

“Wagner further stated that (Person 2) yelled ‘I hope you die and get run over by a car’ while (Person 1) was yelling, ‘Die, die, die.’ Wagner was eventually able to get to her vehicle and leave the parking lot. Wagner appeared to be shaken up by this incident. This writer also spoke with Councilwoman [Lisa] Faraglia who confirmed Wagner’s details of these events,” the report said in conclusion.

Wagner declined to comment on whether any investigation beyond the police report was underway.

The council fired Keffer’s chief administrative officer, Vince Rongione, earlier this month. Rongione has continued to work, however.

At the council hearing last week, when Rongione joined the council meeting via Zoom, the council first voted to expel him. When he refused to leave, the council took care of a small number of items and then voted to adjourn the meeting early in protest.

Wagner says there were several other witnesses in addition to Faraglia, and that the harassment is the first of its kind, at least in her new position.

“I was sworn in January 3, 2022, and I can tell you that no, I have not been threatened as a council person. The only time I’ve ever really been threatened in my life was when I was a district attorney,” in the Delaware County district attorney’s office.

A month after Wagner and others were sworn in, the political imbroglio began.

At a council meeting in early February, township Treasurer David Haman (D) gave a presentation in which he examined the fund balances in several accounts, and concluded that some of the balances were lower than they should have been.

Mayor Keffer and Rongione said the report was incomplete and part of an “ambush.”

Since then, battle lines have hardened.

A bipartisan group of six on the council, three Democrats and three Republicans, approved a forensic examination of the township’s accounts, with a special focus on federal funds the township received from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

Keffer launched her own financial investigation conducted by national accounting firm Marcum LLP, and released the results last month. She and Rongione have touted the findings of that report, such as: “Despite numerous interviews, NO person reported or provided information alleging misuse of the ARPA proceeds.”

Additionally, a former finance director who left the township last year in good standing has said he has been cooperating as a witness with an investigation by the Delaware County District Attorney’s office that is related to the ongoing financial fight.

In early June, the group of six voted to fire Rongione, a move that’s being disputed and ignored by the Keffer administration. Rongione has continued to work while the group of six is striving for a court order that, if granted, would give legal backing to the vote to fire him, thereby terminating his official access to the township’s levers of power, including access to his office and email and the ability to sign checks.

The investigation authorized by the bipartisan group of six is still underway, with results expected this summer.

Through all of the investigations, the group of six have declined to authorize any further spending of the federal ARPA funds, something that has rankled Keffer, Rongione, and their supporters.

Faraglia said she’s relatively certain the alleged harassment was a result of the culminating political tensions.

“It’s a little bit of everything. It’s the financial investigation. It’s the hold up on the ARPA funds. It’s because we adjourned the meeting, because we terminated the CAO Vince Rongione,” she told Broad + Liberty. “It started inside our council meeting and escalated very badly, and then it continued outside. Um, I don’t think it’s safe anymore to even have residents at our meeting because of the way that they act.”

Wagner, meanwhile, said the incident will not deter her from her mission.

“I can tell you that I ran for this office because I care so much about Upper Darby Township and I did it for the betterment of Upper Darby Township, and that is always my intent,” she said.

“I feel that I should not be intimidated from doing that and from following through with my intent — and I will not be intimidated. I may have been very scared and uncomfortable that night, but I will not be intimidated from continuing my duties as a councilwoman.”

This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty.