RED BANK: WHERE IS THE EMAIL LEAK PROBE?

Councilman Ed Zipprich during a council meeting via Zoom in May. (Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

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More than eight months after the Red Bank council hired a lawyer to advise it on how to deal with an explosive email leak…

Crickets.

At issue is a series of emails from July, 2020, concerning the renewal of the borough’s trash-hauling contract.

In the emails, then-Business Administrator Ziad Shehady expressed alarm that Councilman Ed Zipprich might be interfering in the bidding for the contract.

The emails, to borough Attorney Greg Cannon and elected officials, were shared anonymously with redbankgreen, and contained some correspondence that was then less than 24 hours old.

In the aftermath, Councilmen Erik Yngstrom and Hazim Yassin called for an investigation into whether Zipprich had improper contact with a bidder, DeLisa Demolition (which later won the contract).

Zipprich, however, claimed his communications with DeLisa were proper, and that the release of the emails constituted both a breach of attorney-client privilege and an attempt to smear him.

After months of bitter stalemate over the matter, amid generally rising acrimony between two blocs on the all-Democratic council, the body agreed in December to hire attorney Barry Cooke to weigh in on the matter.

Cooke’s assignment, according to the resolution that authorized the contract: produce a report “opining as to whether” the council the should commission an independent investigation of the facts and circumstances regarding potential interference with the Borough’s sanitation contract bid  during the summer of 2020 and/or the subsequent release of confidential information related thereto in August 2020.”

The report was to include Cooke’s “findings, conclusions and suggested corrective action(s), if any.” No deadline was set in the contract.

But Mayor Pasquale Menna told redbankgreen that as of Wednesday, the borough clerk still had not received a report from Cooke, a personal-injury attorney at the politically connected Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer firm in Eatontown. Cooke also serves as borough attorney in Avon-by-the-Sea.

Cooke was to be paid up to $7,500 for the work, according to the resolution that authorized the contract. No payments have been made, said Chief Financial Officer Peter O’Reilly.

Meantime, cobwebs have grown over the dispute, even as tensions on the council rose to peak in the spring and now appear to have abated.

In February, Cannon told redbankgreen that Cooke had been “provided with the materials he requested to do his work about 45-60 days ago.”

When Zipprich asked about the status of Cooke’s work at a council meeting in April, Menna said he expected to receive a report by the end of that month.

Since then, in response to questions by Cedar Avenue resident Sue Viscomi and others, Menna has repeatedly suggested the report is imminent. But earlier this week, he said he still had not received it.

So what’s the holdup?

“As far as I know, scheduling of interviews with people involved to complete report,” Menna said via text.

Cooke did not reply to an email seeking an update sent earlier this week.

The report still matters, said Zipprich and Councilman Michael Ballard.

“This is an issue that taxpayer monies have been spent and a conclusion is warranted,” Ballard told redbankgreen via email Thursday.

“I have been in contact with Mr. Cooke via email since December, providing him with documents and notes,” Zipprich said, also via email. “I have offered dates to him over the course of the summer, his replies have been scarce. The mayor and boro attorney are aware of my correspondence.”

Yngstrom, Yassin and council members Kathy Horgan and Kate Triggiano, who sided with them on the issue, did not respond to a redbankgreen request for comment.

Whether the public will ever get to see the Cooke report, absent another leak, is uncertain. Cannon told redbankgreen in February that it would not be considered releasable.

The report would constitute “a legal memorandum on the appropriate next step(s), if any, by the governing body in this situation,” Cannon wrote. “The report will contain legal advice and recommendations regarding same. Thus, the report will be an attorney-client privileged document, not subject to OPRA [New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act] or public inspection.”