Friday, December 28, 2012
Multiple housing-code violations were discovered more than two years ago in a Hackensack house owned by politically connected lawyers, but the city never issued any summonses or demanded that the deficiencies be corrected.
DON SMITH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Houses at 236 and 238 Johnson Ave. in Hackensack.
Instead, the violations only came to light this month when a fire damaged a neighboring house also owned by the lawyers.
Hackensack zoning board attorney Richard Malagiere, lawyer Carmine Alampi and Anthony Errico — the owners — were not cited for any violations at 236 Johnson Ave. since they purchased the property in 2008, even though previous owners had been issued such citations several times. On Dec. 10, a fire damaged the adjacent 238 Johnson Ave., forcing out 15 people and uncovering numerous illegal electrical connections and other problems there.
City officials said they could offer no ready answers for the lack of summonses and would look into the matter, but the apparent failure to enforce basic safety laws is raising fresh concerns among critics of the city’s leadership, long dominated by the Zisa family. They say Zisa allies such as Malagiere, who has received at least $822,000 in fees from Hackensack for legal services since 2010, benefit from their ties and exert huge influence.
Neither Alampi nor Malagiere responded to requests to be interviewed for this article. Errico could not be reached.
In April 2010, a Hackensack housing inspector found smoke detectors were missing, illegal locks on bedroom doors and other violations at 236 Johnson Ave. and sent a fax to Alampi reminding him that the house was two years past due for a certificate of occupancy, records show. The message was underscored with several exclamation points.
“Eliminate rooming house conditions,” inspector Julie Ferenczi wrote atop a long list of problems, which included a lack of smoke detectors on all floors, no carbon-monoxide detector on the sleeping level in the hallway, and key-locked bedroom doors, in violation of the housing code. She also noted the overdue certificate of occupancy.
Contacted this month, Ferenczi said she could recall no details of her inspection or if she issued a summons.
But fire and housing records show that Errico, Malagiere and Alampi — a heavy contributor to local Democratic candidates — never applied for a new certificate of occupancy, which would entail an inspection.
“I am afraid that the city’s treatment of these landlords shows once again how little things have really changed in Hackensack — there have been fires in that house before,” said John LaBrosse, a councilman and critic of the current administration, referring to 238 Johnson Ave. “There were ongoing violations that the city knew about, yet a fire still happened and people could have died.
“You have to ask yourself how this happened.”
A blaze was reported at 238 Johnson Ave. in 2007, fire records show, about a year before the partners bought the houses.
Hackensack’s top construction official said he never knew that Malagiere was a co-owner, despite the fact that Malagiere is listed as such on building department documents going back four years.
“I didn’t know Rich Malagiere owned those places until the morning of the fire and I saw him standing there,” said Joseph Mellone, who heads the city’s building and land use office.
Mellone said in an interview last week he wasn’t aware that anyone in his office had dealings with the owners since they bought the two homes in December 2007 and April 2008. At the time, he said, inspectors issued Alampi a routine sale notice that both houses required a safety inspection and certificate of occupancy before they could be leased.
Mellone could not explain why Malagiere and Alampi were not given summonses or fined for the “rooming house” violations and other deficiencies noted by Ferenczi.
City records show that previous owners of each house had received several summonses for a range of violations, including failure to clean up tree debris and repaint chipped walls and doors.
“Obviously, there should have been a summons issued,” Mellone said. “Why there wasn’t, I really can’t speak to that.”
Soon after the fire, Mellone said he would cite only the tenants for the illegal conditions in the building. But that decision was quickly reversed after The Record reported the lawyers’ interest in the property, and summonses were issued to the owners over the lack of a current certificate of occupancy. City Manager Stephen Lo Iacono also asked Teaneck building officials for an independent review of the city’s handling of the case and to submit a report on the matter. There’s no time frame for that review and, as of late last week, the building remained unoccupied.
Malagiere and Alampi formed a company in the spring of 2007 to buy the two Johnson Avenue parcels. They approached the city Planning Board that year for permission to tear down the houses and erect an office building in their place. Records show they paid $499,000 for each tract.
City planners approved a string of variances so the owners could redevelop the properties, located near an NJ Transit rail station and next to a rezoned 11-acre county-owned site the city wants to redevelop as apartments and shops. Johnson Avenue is likely to be added to the redevelopment area, city officials say, a move that would increase the land’s value.
Meanwhile, a search of zoning board records shows that Malagiere was legal adviser to the zoning board while his business partner, Alampi, appeared at six hearings before the board between October 2007 and August of this year. The two formed their partnership that October.
There is no record of Malagiere removing himself or informing the board of his partnership with Alampi in the minutes from those hearings or in transcripts from some of them. The other transcripts were unavailable for review.
But at several meetings, Malagiere is recorded offering legal advice to the board about Alampi’s applications and, in one case, appeared to back Alampi’s arguments. Malagiere had no direct business interest in Alampi’s applications before the board.
Three members of the zoning board, including Chairman Michael Guerra, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Hackensack attorney Joseph Zisa said he “presumed” that Malagiere disclosed his business relationship with Alampi to the board, but he said he would review meeting transcripts to be sure he did. Lo Iacono also said he was trying to find all hearing transcripts.
“Obviously, if there is some kind of conflict we are concerned about and we would address it,” said Lo Iacono. “This is something we are looking at.”
Alan Rosenthal, professor of public policy at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics, said that in general all public officials should disclose possible conflicts.
“It’s just reasonable and right in this day and age to let it be known you are involved in a business relationship that may impinge on your public duties,” Rosenthal said.
At the same time, he said officials who make such disclosures to their colleagues sometimes feel no need to remove themselves from official matters if they believe the conflict does not color their official actions.
“If they openly disclose and then declare they are impartial, everyone may accept that,” he said. “But you have to start with disclosure and a public declaration. It’s a pretty low bar.”
State ethics law requires local public officials to disclose conflicts of interest in cases involving family members or a business in which the official is part owner. In this situation, Malagiere had no direct business interest in Alampi’s applications before the zoning board, even though the two were business partners in another pursuit.