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225 APARTMENTS ON BIRCHWOOD AVENUE
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REPORT CLEARS MORIN IN CF CONFLICT OF INTEREST DISPUTE

 By DELL SIMEONE
Specially Written for The Westfield Leader
June 20, 2013

CRANFORD – An independent report commissioned by the Cranford Township Committee has found that there was no conflict of interest in Phil Morin’s representation of Cranford on the Lehigh Acquisition site plan hearings relating to 555 South Avenue or the Birchwood Avenue/ Cranford Development Associates affordable housing litigation. 

The report by Michael Ambrosio, an attorney and professor at Seton Hall Law School, made this opinion on the basis that the law firm of Florio Perucci Steinhardt and Fader (FPSF), which employs Mr. Morin, withdrew its representation after the deed for 555 South Avenue was transferred from Lehigh to Woodmont Proper ties in March, thus removing a potential conflict of interest, as the firm would have been representing both the developer, Woodmont, and the township. 

Mr. Ambrosio also determined Mr. Morin could continue to represent Cranford on the Birchwood/Cranford Development Associates litigation and other unrelated matters.

 Individual homeowners and members of the Concerned Citizens of Cranford have been opposed to the proposed development of 360 apartment units, with 60 affordable units, by a subsidiary of the S. Hekemian Group called the Cranford Development Associates (CDA). 

Mr. Morin told The Westfield Leader that he was “pleased with the professor’s findings that our firm had no conflict with respect to CDA/ Birchwood and the site-plan hearings.” 

“His credentials speak for themselves. He’s acknowledged that our firm acted correctly. It’s exactly what I would expect. We don’t represent clients in every aspect of their work (Woodmont),” Mr. Morin said. 

In a press release issued to this newspaper, Mr. Morin said, “While I was confident that Professor Ambrosio would not find a conflict, it feels great to be vindicated by one of the most well respected ethics professors in the State of New Jersey as to our firm’s representation of Cranford,” Mr. Morin said. 

When asked to comment at the June 5 planning board meeting, Mayor Thomas Hannen, Jr. said he had no statement to make regarding the report. 

Mayor Hannen said when reached this week for comment, “We are moving ahead. We’ve already hired a new attorney for the appeal (on Birchwood) and a new attorney to deal with the NJDEP (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.” 

Following his presentation in executive session to the Cranford Township Committee last week, Mr. Ambrosio said it took so long to do the research and review the findings of the Concerned Citizens and information from (FPSF) that the report had been delayed. 

“We want to be careful not to paint with a broad brush,” he said. He also said it would not be appropriate to comment on the findings. “It should be done by the committee.”

 Rita Labrutto of the Concerned Citizens of Cranford said about the report, “I am disappointed that Professor Ambrosio’s report doesn’t offer an opinion. The representation of FPSF on April 3, and April 22, of this year, in court, which is after the March 25 date where the conflict starts. Professor Ambrosio based his report on the facts given to him, not investigation. I wonder if anyone told him about April 3 and April 22?”

 Liz Sweeney, also of the Concerned Citizens of Cranford, commented, “Cranford Township shouldn’t have to spend $5,000 on a report indicating a conflict. Steve Santola, who is an executive vice president and general counsel of Woodmont, was at the 555 South Avenue site-plan hearing last August (2012). I find it hard to believe that no one from Woodmont or FPSF wouldn’t question if there was a potential conflict of interest at that point.” 

In response, Mr. Morin said in a statement to The Leader, “The same citizens who argued unsuccessfully that our firm had a conflict at the Lehigh site plan hearings have concocted an new theory that is equally meritless. The fact is that the Lehigh/555 South Avenue litigation was severed from the case and was finally dismissed with prejudice as a result of the 2010 settlement by the court’s order on March 22, 2013,” Mr. Morin said. “Professor Ambrosio acknowledges that we did not even find out that a Woodmont subsidiary purchased the property until April 12. Our firm presented the court-ordered amendments to the master plan to the planning board on April 3 at which several of the members of the Concerned Citizens group were present and spoke but they raised no objections at that time. Furthermore, the final hearing on April 22 was held and the conflict issues were raised again, including Woodmont’s recent acquisition of the 555 property.