The city has agreed to pay $9,275 to cover councilmen William McKoy and Andre Sayegh’s legal bills incurred in defending themselves against the criminal charges filed by Sirrano Keith Baldeo, publisher of the New Jersey Pulse newspaper.
Council members approved the payout during a special meeting on Tuesday night. The law firm of Sills, Cummis & Gross which represented McKoy billed $5,400 for 43.20 hours. Attorney Joseph Del Russo, who represented Sayegh, billed $3,875 for 31 hours of work, according to municipal records.
The city’s chief attorney Domenick Stampone had initially informed the seven council members, who were accused by Baldeo of official misconduct, the city would not cover their legal expenses.
Stampone explained the shift in the city’s position after the meeting on Tuesday night. “You have an allegation of criminal conduct that was limited to council members acting within the scope of their council duties, literally sitting at a council meeting, voting, talking, discussing, debating, under those limited circumstances, we felt it appropriate to indemnify reasonable legal costs.”
Both law firms wanted $375 per hour. Stampone brought them down to $125 per hour, the city’s customary rate for lawyers.
Sayegh and McKoy placed blame for the legal expenses on Baldeo. Other council members in the case did not hire attorneys.
“He cost taxpayers money,” said Sayegh referring to Baldeo on Tuesday night.
“Sirrano was using the court as a club. He had no other case,” said McKoy on Wednesday morning. “He attempted to manipulate the court.”
The publisher filed more than 200 criminal complaints against city officials and others. He filed a civil suit against the city seeking $10 million in damages in April.
“How could they say it’s my fault? They abused me and violated my rights,” said Baldeo in an hour and 20-minute interview on Wednesday morning. “They are nothing but tyrants, bullies and dictators who think they are above the law.”
Baldeo said the council went after him for his outspoken coverage. “They censored me,” he said. He said he didn’t want taxpayers to pick up the legal tab that’s why he filed criminal charges prior to filing a civil lawsuit.
Stampone said the city will attempt to recoup the $9,275 through filing a crossclaim in the federal court.
Baldeo viewed the threat of the city attempting to recoup the legal expenses as a “scare tactic” to force him to drop the lawsuit.
The council approved a measure indemnifying council members of legal expenses in the dismissed cases in a 5-0 vote. Council members Shahin Khalique, Alex Mendez, Kenneth Morris, Luis Velez, and Ruby Cotton voted in favor.
Sayegh and McKoy recused themselves from the vote.