Sunday, December 30, 2007

EnCap - Bergen Record - Wisler-Robinson connections laid out

Published in the Bergen Record, Sunday, December 23, 2007

How EnCap pair played winning hand


State officials investigating the EnCap Golf debacle are probing the close personal and professional relationship between EnCap's lead attorney and a major dirt vendor who won a $14 million contract at the troubled landfill project.

The lawyer is Eric D. Wisler, a senior partner in the powerful DeCotiis firm of Teaneck.

The contractor is Leroy I. Robinson, a part-time political operative from Essex County who managed to win millions in government contracts while working as a maintenance foreman for the Garden State Parkway.

He is also the unindicted co-conspirator mentioned in federal documents from a corruption investigation in Monmouth County, according to one of the disgraced officials involved in the scandal.

The 10-year relationship between Wisler and Robinson has been beneficial to both.

Robinson, as a commissioner of the Essex County Utilities Authority, approved millions of dollars in no-bid legal work the authority gave to Wisler as general counsel.

And Robinson gave Wisler's wife, Merry, a job working for yet another of his ventures, a title-insurance company with offices on the 15th floor of Newark's landmark One Washington Square.

For his part, Wisler helped Robinson set up a private fill-supply partnership with the chairman of the utilities authority. And it was Wisler who led Robinson to the EnCap contract.

"I was out with Eric and they were looking for a fill provider,'' Robinson said last week in an interview at his attorney's office. "That's how it all got started.''

Robinson and his attorney, Patrick Collins of Franzblau Dratch in Livingston, said they have been questioned extensively by investigators working for state Inspector General Mary Jane Cooper, who for the last 10 months has been probing how EnCap secured $300 million in public financing.

Robinson acknowledged that Cooper has forwarded information about his dealings with Wisler to the state Attorney General's Office, which is evaluating Cooper's findings for possible criminal prosecution. Both Cooper's office and the Attorney General's Office declined comment for this article.

In a statement Friday, Eric Wisler denied that there was anything improper in his relationship with Robinson:

"EnCap urgently needed to bring in a contractor who could provide immediate fill that met state standards. [Robinson's company] was a qualified fill and transfer operator who EnCap believed would get the job done. They were brought on after others had failed, and any suggestion that my wife's brief time there in a clerical position was a factor is an absolute lie."

A separate statement from EnCap itself echoed Wisler's.

Many of the cost overruns and construction delays that hobbled the project stemmed from EnCap's inability to obtain and manage the 8 million cubic yards of fill material needed to cover the old Meadowlands landfills at the heart of the golf village venture.

While Robinson's 2004 contract with EnCap obliged him to supply clean fill at a price of $2.85 a cubic yard, he was largely unable to deliver material at that price, and later submitted estimates as high as $20 a cubic yard.

Robinson's company has sued EnCap, saying it still is owed $1.3 million for the dirt it delivered before the project collapsed earlier this year. Robinson said the company received $5.7 million.

Robinson blamed fill problems on EnCap's incompetence and "complete failure" to manage daily operations at the 795-acre site in Lyndhurst and Rutherford. The developer, he said, also reneged on promises to furnish a processing center onsite.

"They're trying to lay all the blame for EnCap at my feet, and that isn't fair,'' Robinson said. "This project was messed up beyond belief.''

Robinson and his attorney also downplayed his 10-year business and social relationship with Wisler, and dismissed the suggestion that their mutual success in collecting taxpayer money through public contracts was at all related. He said he employed Wisler's wife for only two to 2½ years, and claimed she was paid nothing at first and just $20,000 to $30,000 total, doing secretarial tasks.

"Leroy Robinson is a qualified fill contractor and Eric Wisler is his friend, that's the end of the story," said Collins, Robinson's attorney. "Leroy gave Merry Wisler a job because she was a friend, a bored housewife looking for something to do. The idea that there is any quid pro quo is ridiculous.''

Collins did, however, concede that Merry Wisler's employment with Robinson was "a serious lapse of judgment on Wisler's part.''

"I'm sure he regrets it, because now he's answering questions about it from the state,'' Collins said.

Tied to scandal

Court documents filed in September by U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie in the ongoing Monmouth County scandal describe a kickback and money-laundering scheme involving someone identified only as "C-1," a "co-conspirator not named as a defendant."

Former Keyport Mayor John Merla, the brother of the defendant in that case, told The Record last week that Leroy Robinson was "C-1."

The former mayor was one of 11 officials arrested in 2005 in Christie's "Operation Bid Rig" investigation of public-contract awards. He has pleaded guilty to bribery in the scheme and has been sentenced to a 22-month prison term.

Robinson and Collins declined to answer any questions about the federal investigation.

Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, declined to answer questions about Robinson.

The court papers describe how undercover federal agents wearing concealed wires recorded a series of meetings in 2004 between Keyport businessman Joseph "JoJo" Merla and "C-1."

Federal prosecutors say "C-1" greased the conspiracy's wheels by writing money-laundering checks for consulting work that never happened. On one check, "C-1" wrote: "Consulting Services Fill Protocol.''

In state documents concerning the EnCap project, Robinson is described as a fill-protocol consultant. One of Robinson's companies, LIR-Consulting, was set up by Wisler, who is listed as the partnership's registered agent.

State records also list the DeCotiis firm as registered agent of the Uptown Keyport Bar and Grill LLC. According to John Merla, Robinson and his mother were once partners in the business; another brother, Charles Merla, owns it now.

Joseph Merla pleaded guilty to conspiracy in September of this year; federal authorities have requested that his sentencing be postponed until March, pending his "continued cooperation in an ongoing investigation."

Won dubious loans

In recent months, The Record has reported extensively how Wisler and another DeCotiis attorney won a series of lucrative concessions for the EnCap projects from state regulators overseeing the project.

State documents and interviews with top regulators showed that the firm was instrumental in engineering an unprecedented series of low-interest state loans that made the project possible. Former Department of Environmental Protection Chief Bradley Campbell and Treasurer John McCormac both said they opposed a loan but were told by the Governor's Office to make it anyway.

With the loan now in default and EnCap verging on extinction, state officials admit taxpayers may be stuck with a $51 million bill for part of the loan proceeds that cannot be recovered.

Terms of the loan and a series of environmental breaks -- including permission to bring millions of tons of contaminated materials to the EnCap site -- were largely negotiated by Wisler during the McGreevey administration.

At the time, Wisler's law partner, Al DeCotiis, was James McGreevey's chief fund-raiser, while another Wisler partner, Michael DeCotiis, was McGreevey's chief counsel.

Documents recently obtained by The Record show that McGreevey's first attorney general, David Samson, scolded Wisler for holding inappropriate private meetings about EnCap with McGreevey Cabinet officers. "This is not the first time you have been warned,'' Samson wrote in a 2002 letter to Wisler.

"This project was clearly one that the Governor's Office wanted, and there was little chance that anyone could stop it,'' Campbell, the former DEP commissioner, said in a recent interview. "Eric Wisler and the DeCotiis firm clearly had a lot of influence.''

Checkered past

It is unclear if the state ever looked into Robinson's checkered employment record with the state before approving his exclusive contract to supply 2.5 million cubic yards to be placed near the surface, above the landfill caps that were to be installed at the EnCap site.

In 1999, Robinson was suspended from his $92,000-a-year job for allegedly stealing paint from the New Jersey Highway Authority. Investigators said he gave the paint to a friend in South Jersey who owned a chicken farm and was seeking poultry contracts in Atlantic City -- where Robinson served on the convention center board.

Three years later, Robinson was placed on leave again after a private detective hired by the authority videotaped him routinely cutting hours from work to run errands or relax at home.

Robinson denies any wrongdoing on his parkway job, from which he retired in July 2005 with a pension of $3,200 a month. He said he was easily able to manage all his part-time ventures, including political fund raising, fill work and affirmative-action consulting, while working for the parkway.

Robinson's success in winning major public contracts while working as full-time highway foreman for the state underscores how closely private and public interests can intersect in New Jersey.

Consider Robinson's record with the Essex County Utilities Authority, an agency where he served as one of nine commissioners -- including periods as vice chairman and a steering-board member -- from August 1997 to February 2003.

Robinson won his appointment to the authority after volunteering as a fund-raiser and minority-outreach worker for Gov. Christie Whitman's 1997 reelection campaign. He was officially nominated to the board by then-Essex County Executive James Treffinger, another Republican, who was sentenced in 2003 to a 13-month prison term on a federal corruption conviction.

As a board member, Robinson voted on millions in spending, including legal fees paid to the authority's general counsel -- Wisler -- with whom Robinson was forging close ties as a friend and legal adviser.

Robinson also formed a business partnership with another board member, Nutley Township Commissioner Mauro Tucci. In 2001, Wisler filed papers with the state declaring himself the registered agent for G & I Associates, a fill-supply company that had Robinson's suburban Maplewood home as its address.

Under Tucci's chairmanship of the authority, the agency board approved millions in fees to Wisler and the DeCotiis firm. In Bloomfield, where Tucci worked as township administrator and Robinson was awarded a lucrative "affirmative-action" consulting contract, the DeCotiis firm was paid $350,000 for legal work between 2001 and 2003.

Robinson resigned from the utilities authority in June 2003 as it was preparing to get bids on a five-year, $9 million contract to dispose of ash from the county incinerator. Although five firms submitted bids for the exclusive contract, the winner and low bidder turned out to be a business partner of Leroy Robinson.

Robinson and Newark demolition contractor Ted Fiore formed a company called LIR-Fiore registered to the address of Robinson's consulting and insurance office.

Tom Barrett, a spokesman for the utilities authority, said that after winning the contract in February 2004, Fiore directed the authority's financial officer to send all paperwork, including bimonthly payments and invoices, to LIR-Fiore's office in Newark.

"We had no way of knowing Robinson was involved,'' Barrett said.

Robinson denied being partners with Fiore at the time the ash contract was awarded to Fiore, and said he didn't join the partnership until several days later, when, he claimed, Fiore approached him to help finance a bond needed in connection with the contract.

Robinson disclosed his financial interest in the contract on a 2005 state ethics form.

Competitor removed

For Robinson and Fiore, who did not respond to requests for an interview, the Essex County contract tied in nicely with their developing plans for EnCap. Robinson said he planned to mix some of the highly contaminated incinerator ash with sewage sludge and dump the mixture at EnCap.

EnCap demurred on the ash, but Robinson and Fiore moved ahead with their plans to supply other fill.

The Robinson and Fiore team was the third in a succession of haulers who had at one time been tabbed by EnCap as a main fill provider for material above the cap.

One of the spurned companies, owned by prominent New Jersey hauler Nicholas Mazzochi, lost out to Robinson after obtaining a DEP permit to do the EnCap work and building a $5 million facility for the work.

Mazzochi said Wisler engineered his removal from the site so EnCap could gain control of a huge amount of clean material he already had placed there.

"They forced me off the site, ordered me to remove my fill, but then a year later take control of it themselves and plow it under,'' said Mazzochi. "I was screwed beyond being screwed, and it was all engineered by Eric Wisler to make money in that rats' nest they created in the Meadowlands."

Robinson's contract gave him huge influence over the environmental health of the future EnCap development, a site where 5,000 people were to live eventually. As a "fill broker" for the project, Robinson was charged with finding clean material and policing hundreds of haulers who arrived there every day.

He was, in essence, a watchdog for the largest redevelopment project in New Jersey history.

Video: Trump tours EnCap

Video: Guided tour of the development site

Letter to Senate Pres. Codey from Inspecter General Cooper

DEP list of violations by EnCap

Meadowlands Commission Web site

More coverage on Encap

* * *

Some key figures in probe of EnCap deals

Eric D. Wisler: Partner in DeCotiis, FitzPatrick, Cole & Wisler; lead attorney for EnCap; former attorney for the Essex County Utilities Authority.

Merry Wisler: Wife of Eric Wisler; former employee of Leroy Robinson.

Leroy Robinson: Partner in LIR-Fiore, a major fill provider for EnCap; former member of the Essex County Utilities Authority board.

Ted Fiore: Partner with Leroy Robinson in LIR-Fiore; partner with Robinson in Essex County ash-disposal contract.

John Merla: Former mayor of Keyport; pleaded guilty in January to a single federal bribery count and is due to begin a 22-month prison sentence next month.

Joseph "Jo-Jo" Merla: Brother of John Merla; pleaded guilty in September to a single federal count of money laundering.

Mary Jane Cooper: New Jersey inspector general; expected to release a report in coming weeks on her office's investigation into the EnCap project.

Mauro Tucci: Former board chairman of the Essex County Utilities Authority; formed fill company with Leroy Robinson.
Staff Writer James Quirk contributed to this article. E-mail: and

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.