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Newark taps Lesniak law firm in Prudential case

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Sen. Raymond Lesniak says he doesn't appear in court anymore but does
Sen. Raymond Lesniak says he doesn't appear in court anymore but does "supervise the overall legal strategy, for sure" at his law firm.

The city of Newark has hired the law firm Weiner Lesniak LLP, co-founded by state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, in the legal battle over Prudential Financial's plan to leave Gateway Center for a new downtown skyscraper.

But the influential lawmaker is dismissing concerns about a possible conflict of interest.

On Wednesday night, the Newark Municipal Council was slated to approve a year-long contract with Weiner Lesniak after a bidding process that received 13 proposals, according to council documents. In a separate memo dated Jan. 16, the city's corporation counsel notes that Newark is looking to retain the Parsippany law firm in the Prudential case, in which three Gateway landlords have sued the city and the insurance giant.

Paul Josephson, the Hill Wallack attorney representing Gateway, said in an e-mail, "We are troubled by the city's selection of counsel and this turn of events but have the utmost confidence that any judge will see these approvals must be overturned."

A city spokesman was not immediately able to comment after receiving questions from NJBIZ shortly before 1 p.m. today.

Lesniak, who as a lawmaker co-sponsored the Urban Transit Hub incentive bill that is at the center of the litigation, today rejected concerns about the contract with Newark. He said that "presumably they recognize the value of the firm," pointing to when the city hired Weiner Lesniak in 2010, in its pursuit of some $1 billion in owed lease payments from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Newark Liberty International Airport.

"They have no idea what they're talking about," Lesniak said about critics. "It's not a conflict of interest, number one. And number two: Wouldn't you hire the law firm that got you $1.2 billion in the past?"

Of his potential involvement in the case, he said, "I don't appear in court anymore, but I do supervise the overall legal strategy, for sure."

Three of the four Gateway landlords, who currently lease nearly 1 million square feet of office space to Prudential, have filed several lawsuits over the company's plan to vacate the space and build a new office tower in the Brick City. In 2011, the state Economic Development Authority awarded Prudential a $250 million Urban Transit Hub tax credit for the project; it was later reduced to $211 million.

Newark will pay up to $150,000 this year for retaining Weiner Lesniak, according to the council resolution. The document also says the firm was chosen "based upon price and other factors."

Meanwhile, the case has been transferred from Superior Court Judge Siobhan A. Teare, in Newark, to Judge Dennis Carey, though it was not immediately clear why. Teare is a former member of Weiner Lesniak. A staff member at Teare's chambers said the judge was not available.

Prudential's project calls for building a 740,000-square-foot office complex alongside Military Park, some two blocks north of Prudential's headquarters. The $444 million project, which has been championed by city officials and other landlords, was approved in August by the Newark planning board.

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