This investigative report will be a collaborative effort. Over a series of posts our staff writers and contributors will lay out the story for you. We will reveal the players and the backroom deals. We will expose the way that laws, rules and regulations were skirted, bent and violated.
To the best of our knowledge, we will also reveal the unreported meetings, expensive meals and trips. We will connect the dots — dots that certain individuals have spent a lot of money and political pressure to try to erase — but we have the story, and we are going to tell it. All of it! – Dan
Just one day after the 2010 general election, Sussex County Freeholder Richard Zeoli met former Morris County Freeholder, John Inglesino for a casual dinner to discuss politics and the future. Zeoli was interested in moving up and Inglesino was interested in making more money, much more.
At the time, Inglesino was doing quite well as Chief Counsel for the Morris County Improvement Authority. His partner, Stephen B. Pearlman, in the firm of Inglesino, Webster, Wyciskala & Taylor, LLC was Bond Counsel for the same agency. Obviously no conflict of interest. Inglesino had brought Pearlman into the MCIA, and into his firm, to push the most lucrative money making scheme around; Solar.
Although later statements by Zeoli and Inglesino downplay the solar conversation at that dinner, it was well known by both parties that the featured sales pitch for the solar project had already been reviewed and rejected by Sussex County. It was also known that Sussex County administrators had deemed it too risky to propose. Inglesino was doing an end-around play to enlist the somewhat naive Zeoli to bring Sussex on board. For the Inglesino law firm it could mean seven figure fees for the next 15 years. For Zeoli it would mean brownie points for his next career move.
Rich Zeoli was anxious and full of youthful ambition. Zeoli had served as Sussex County GOP Chairman for years without pay, and he needed to make money and to move up in the ranks. As a reward for his party service, he was handed an uncontested freeholder seat in 2009 when Glenn Vetrano opted not to seek re-election. Now with only one year on the board, he was set to be the new Freeholder Director in January 2011 and his goal was to make a fast mark for himself. His plan was to rise quickly in New Jersey politics. But, he needed money and influence to achieve that goal. John Inglesino, as a major political benefactor in Morris County, one of New Jersey’s wealthiest counties, had access to both. Rich knew he needed to make a good impression, John knew he wanted to make a sale.
John Inglesino had partnered with an infamously notorious attorney, Stephen B. Pearlman. Both attorneys enjoyed colorful reputations as having flexible ethical standards and were widely regarded in the New Jersey legal community as no-holds-barred financial rainmakers. Over the previous few years Inglesino and Pearlman together had achieved the creation; and complete take-over, of the MCIA (Morris County Improvement Authority).
The MCIA is an autonomous bonding authority, the Inglesino firm’s complete control of all legal advice and actions taken by the authority allowed them to rake in millions of dollars in fees on all public projects. More on this in a later post.
The inside deal that was cut at that dinner would effect Sussex County for at least the next fifteen years. Because of their actions, and the legal maneuvering, stonewalling, subterfuge, cover-ups and inaction of dozens of others involved, Sussex, Morris and Somerset Counties would become embroiled in a political and financial scandal that will prey on the taxpayer for more than a decade to come. All while assuring huge financial rewards to a small group of connected professional lawyers, engineers, accountants, Wall Street con men and their wannabe buddies.
The proposal would provide solar panel installations on government property, such as schools, municipal and county facilities that would provide lower electricity bills for all involved. The best part??? It would cost the county nothing. All the county had to do was back the bonds that would provide the capital investment. After the panels are built the passive generation of electricity would pay the bonds and provide enough money for everyone to make out.
Quoting from a report recently released by Sussex County entitled “Report of Investigation, SUSSEX COUNTY RENEWABLE ENERGY PROGRAM” by Matthew Boxer with Lowenstein Sandler LLP:
“According to the MCIA’s December 24, 2009 press release announcing its solar program, the program called for the installation of solar panels on the roofs of several county government facilities and 14 public school buildings in Morris County. The bonds for the project were guaranteed by Morris County, with no debt service to be incurred by the school districts involved, according to the press release. The public-private financing model involved in the project, which is described more fully below, became known as the “Morris Model.”
“The Morris Model solar project gained national renown, as well as accolades for the MCIA attorney who designed its structure, Stephen Pearlman, Esq. Pearlman was Inglesino’s law partner at the time of his November 2010 dinner with Zeoli. The MCIA had been a client of Pearlman’s while he was with his former law firm, and Pearlman continued to represent the MCIA after forming a new law firm with Inglesino.”
“Following the structure of the “Morris Model,” in 2010 Somerset County and the Somerset County Improvement Authority (“SCIA”) commenced their own solar energy project. That project involved 32 solar energy installations for 15 local governments in Somerset County. Stephen Pearlman served as a legal counsel and key player on the Somerset project, similar to the role he played on the earlier Morris County project.”
“In response to Inglesino’s mention of a potential solar energy project at the November 2010 dinner, Zeoli suggested to him that they set up a meeting with other County officials. County email records show that the next day, November 4, Zeoli sent an email to John Eskilson, the County Administrator, suggesting that he set up a meeting with Inglesino to talk about the potential solar project. In relevant part, the email stated: “I [spoke] with John Inglesino last night. He . . . has some involvement in the solar realm now and [is] closing on a project for Somerset County next week. I think it would be good to . . . meet with him.”
“At that time, Sussex County had been looking into solar energy and, according to County employees, would frequently receive proposals from solar energy vendors, but the County had not moved forward with any of those projects. According to then-County Chief Financial Officer (“CFO”) Bernard Re, the County had rejected each of those proposals because they did not make financial sense for the County. The Director of the County’s Division of Facilities similarly stated in his investigative interview that the County and his department in particular had been exploring various solar energy options, but had rejected all of them for financial reasons.”
“In fact, according to County Administrator Eskilson and CFO Re, earlier in 2010 Eskilson and Re personally had met with Morris County representatives about a potential solar energy project. Specifically, according to Re, Eskilson had asked Re to join him for a meeting with Morris County Administrator John Bonanni and Stephen Pearlman in the Morris County Administration Building. Following that meeting, Eskilson and Re decided not to present Morris County’s solar proposal to the Freeholder Board or to others in Sussex County. Re stated in his investigative interview that he and Eskilson felt that the Morris Model project was simply “too rich” for Sussex County.”
“Re further felt that there was risk associated with the project. Eskilson similarly stated in his interview that he and Re were not enthusiastic about the project at that time. Nonetheless, from the time that Freeholder Zeoli emailed Eskilson with the request to meet with Morris County officials, the County’s entry into the Solar Project proceeded without objection. In January 2011, Zeoli became the Director of the Freeholder Board and, as described by Re, Zeoli “ran the Board with an iron fist.” Re stated that Zeoli was interested in the County participating in the Solar Project and everything fell into place from there.”
That pitch over dinner and drinks would set Sussex County towards a financial catastrophe that would ultimately cost the taxpayers millions. It would also cost many good people their jobs and would rob the county of taxpayer dollars necessary to fulfill responsibilities for roads, schools, public safety, health, seniors, veterans and much more for many years to come.
All because of Mr. Zeoli’s unbridled ambition and Mr. Inglesino’s insatiable greed.
To be somewhat fair, even though these two public servants put their own self-centered interests in front of their duty, they were also someone else’s pawns on a public fleeceboard designed to serve other greedy interests as well.
Next post: Following the Money
Sussex County Renewable Energy Project - Report of Investigation