Orange city attorney resigns unexpectedly

Photo by Chris Sykes
Former Orange attorney Eric Pennington addresses City Council on Friday, June 8, during its first hearing on Mayor Dwayne Warren’s Calendar Year 2018 City Budget proposal. Pennington resigned as city attorney sometime last week.

ORANGE, NJ — Orange city attorney Eric Pennington resigned last week, township officials from the City Clerk’s Office confirmed, following revelations he had withheld a copy of the most recent Federal Bureau of Investigation subpoena related to the ongoing probe into allegations of wire fraud, misuse of federal funds and other alleged crimes by members of the city administration. Pennington gave the city clerk a copy of the FBI subpoena almost a month after it had expired.

“The city attorney resigned last week,” said West Ward Councilman Harold Johnson on Monday, June 18. “I don’t have anything to say other than I was shocked and didn’t see it coming.”

“I’m sorry to see him go, as he has been an invaluable asset to the city and a great partner for the business administrator,” said Hartwyk on Tuesday, June 19. “He is an excellent lawyer and a native son of Orange. He will be missed.”

That delay in giving Joyce Lanier, the city clerk, a copy of an official legal document from the federal government prompted the city’s governing body to request a meeting Wednesday, June 6, with a member of the law firm of Kritchley, Kinum and DeNoia, hired to handle all legal matters related to the FBI’s ongoing investigation. According to city officials, including business administrator Chris Hartwyk, North Ward Councilwoman Tency Eason and at large Councilwoman Donna K. Williams, they went into executive session at the meeting.

“The man that people saw at the June 6 meeting was a lawyer from the law firm that the city hired with approval from the city council to handle all legal matters related to the FBI investigation, including the subpoenas that were served on the city in 2016, 2017 and this year,” said Hartwyk on Friday, June 8. “The council went into executive session, so that he could give them an update on the latest developments in the ongoing FBI investigation and to deal with other matters, including personnel.”

Johnson said the subpoena the council went into executive session to discuss was new, not one of the three previous FBI subpoenas previously served on the city in 2016 and 2017. According to Johnson, Pennington had the fourth subpoena in his possession prior to the municipal election on Tuesday, May 8, but did not give a copy of it to Lanier until after it was due to be complied with by city officials and their representatives from the law firm.

“The lawyer from Kritchley, Kinum and DeNoia came to talk to us about an FBI subpoena that was served on the city in April, that had a May 22 deadline, but nobody knew anything about it. The FBI served it on the law firm and the law firm gave a copy of it to the city attorney, but the city attorney didn’t give a copy to the city clerk until after the May 22 deadline had passed, so nobody outside of the administration knew about it and, when we found out about it, we asked for information about it and that’s why the attorney from Kritchley, Kinum and DeNoia came to the June 6 meeting,” said Johnson on Friday, June 8. “It’s all a matter of public record, so it’s on file in the Clerk’s Office and available to the public, now that the city attorney finally gave a copy of it to the city clerk. Anybody that wants to know what the April 2018 subpoena is about just has to go to the Clerk’s Office and fill out an OPRA request,” he said, referring to an Open Public Records Request.

Lanier confirmed Johnson’s account and also said, once she found out about the latest FBI subpoena, she immediately alerted council members who, in turn, requested to speak with someone from KK&D about it. She said Pennington had prohibited her office from giving copies of the fourth known FBI subpoena to members of the public or the media.

“The city attorney has taken the legal position that he reserves the right to withhold documents related to ongoing legal matters from the Clerk’s Office, even though they are a part of the public record,” said Lanier on Monday, June 11. “According to the state of New Jersey, the municipal clerk is the official keeper of records for any municipality in the state and that includes legal documents and correspondence.”

The Record-Transcript submitted an OPRA request to the Orange City Clerk’s Office for a copy of the FBI subpoena on Monday, June 11, but that request was denied.

Lanier said Tuesday, June 12, that “as per the Law Department … records pertaining to an ongoing investigations are exempt from disclosure.”