TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey taxpayers’ tab for the takeover of Atlantic City has reached about $5 million in fees from the law firm former Gov. Chris Christie picked to oversee the gambling resort.
Records obtained Thursday by The Associated Press show the firm of Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi billed the state for $4.8 million going back to the November 2016 takeover of the gambling resort. That’s up from reports of $4 million from earlier this year.
The disclosure comes days after Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy announced that government functions overseen by the firm, run by former U.S. senator and Christie ally Jeffrey Chiesa, would revert to the state Department of Community Affairs within 30 days.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who oversees the department, said the price tag was a factor in the decision.
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“The cost was of concern to us and was relevant in our decision to bring Atlantic City oversight responsibilities back into DCA,” Oliver said in a statement to the AP.
She added that the department is better equipped than an outside law firm to handle the job and that DCA has traditionally overseen financially distressed towns.
Oliver said she did not have an estimate for what the cost to oversee Atlantic City would be for the department, but predicted it would be “significantly less” than what Chiesa billed.
A message left for Chiesa was not returned.
Murphy’s announcement said the action would “ensure economic growth and empowerment” for the city and its residents.
Chiesa’s work has gotten mixed reviews. Christie, before he left office in January, praised it as a bargain, and Democrats too have given it some positive reviews.
Democratic Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, whose district includes Atlantic City, gave Chiesa credit for settling a roughly $160 million bill owed to the Borgata for around $70 million.
“To me that seems like an extremely high number to pay for the work that he did in Atlantic City,” Mazzeo said of the $4.8 million paid to Chiesa’s law firm. But he added: “I would say that Mr. Chiesa did make some headway as far as getting some things done, as far as putting the ship in the right direction, but it came at a very high price tag.”
Chiesa served as Christie’s chief counsel and then as the state’s attorney general before the Republican governor picked him to serve out the term of the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Chiesa did not to seek a full term.
The takeover stemmed from a rough 2014 for the city when four of the resort’s 12 casinos closed and the tax base shrank. Christie and the Democrat-led Legislature passed a bill permitting the takeover in May 2016.
The state’s takeover came only in November 2016 after the state Local Finance Board rejected the city’s proposed five-year turnaround plan. Among the changes Chiesa oversaw were reducing police salaries, lowering leave payments and shrinking the workforce. Christie billed the efforts as part of the city’s turnaround, including the rebranding of Trump Taj Mahal as a Hard Rock property.
It’s a rebound that Murphy is eager to embrace, though he’s not delivering on his promise to end the takeover.
“Atlantic City has without question turned a corner but it still has a ways to go,” Murphy said this week at an unrelated event in response to a reporter’s question about the city’s status.
The deal Chiesa’s firm has with the state set rates at $400 for senior partners; $350 for partners; $240 for associates; and $90 for paralegals.