Lehigh County Solicitor Matthew Sorrentino stood before county commissioners Wednesday night to defend the reputation of his law firm against a claim that it has been involved in a conflict of interest regarding the tax increment financing plan for the proposed Hamilton Crossings Shopping Center in Lower Macungie Township.
Sorrentino appeared before the commissioners at their administrative committee meeting Wednesday night, as a follow-up to a five-page letter he sent them May 9, in which he stated “no conflict of interest exists.”
“I’m not sure there’s a great deal more I can add with respect to this subject,” Sorrentino told the commissioners. “I can’t say a lot more than I said in the letter. I’m happy to answer any additional questions you have.”
In response to their questions, he explained why there has been no legal conflict of interest and cited the fact that the county commissioners rejected participating in the Hamilton Crossings TIF last year as “the proof in the pudding.”
Sorrentino told the commissioners: “I don’t want my solicitors or myself to be in a position where you’re uncomfortable with the advice you are receiving.”
He has advised the commissioners of conflict of interest policies being implemented by the county law department, which he heads. He said two of the three policies “are merely a codification of practices already followed by the county law department.”
The third policy, being implemented for the commissioners, states that they and the county executive will be advised if any members of Sorrentino’s staff, or members of their law firms, represent other governmental agencies in any matter where the county may be involved.
The suggestion of a conflict of interest involving Sorrentino’s law firm -- Norris McLaughlin & Marcus -- was raised in a two-page letter sent to the county commissioners on April 17 by Atty. Jonathan Hugg of Clark Hill, a Philadelphia law firm.
Hugg represents Cedar Realty Trust, the owners of the Trexler Mall and Trexlertown shopping centers who oppose the Hamilton Crossings TIF. He regularly speaks out against the TIF at public meetings.
The issue is that Sorrentino works for the county.
Atty. Richard Somach, his partner at Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, is the Lower Macungie Township solicitor, whose commissioners will determine the fate of TIF financing for the shopping center on June 5.
Atty. John Lushis, also a partner at Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, is solicitor to the Lehigh County Industrial Development Corporation, which wrote the Hamilton Crossings TIF plan.
In his letter, Sorrentino told commissioners Norris McLaughlin & Marcus does not represent Lehigh County. “Rather, I am the Lehigh County solicitor and I am also a partner in Norris McLaughlin & Marcus.”
Sorrentino explained the county, Lower Macungie and LCIDA are not adversaries and that the three lawyers are not pursuing inconsistent legal positions on the same legal issue, even though their clients may be seeking different political policy outcomes.
Hugg’s letter maintained: “It is inappropriate for the solicitor’s law firm subsequently to assist proponents of the TIF as well as those that are supposed to be considering the TIF in a neutral manner.”
Hugg stated lawyers’ rules of professional conduct prohibit them from having conflicts of interest related to current and former clients.
“Ultimately, a lawyer cannot represent multiple clients taking materially different positions in the same controversy unless the lawyer obtains informed consent from all the clients.”
Hugg also maintained lawyers in one law firm cannot represent different interests.
Noting the that county commissioners rejected participating in the TIF last year, Hugg said commissioners “should consider demanding that the solicitor’s firm disqualify itself from representing any other entity regarding the TIF.”
On Wednesday, Commissioner Percy Dougherty explained that Hugg’s letter brought the conflict of interest issue to the county commissioners’ attention.
“In my mind, Mr. Hugg has nothing at all to do with why we’re discussing this tonight,” insisted Commissioner Scott Ott. “We’re discussing it because members of the board want to discuss it. Who brought it to our attention is irrelevant.”
“But that’s what got it started,” said Dougherty.
Said Sorrentino: “I have no interest, frankly, in talking about the TIF. But that is what started this. I felt when someone either between the lines or overtly accuses you of a conflict of interest, you have the obligation to respond.”
Sorrentino said he has only tangentially involved in the TIF issue for the county and that --“with my agreement and out of an abundance of caution” – Somach and Lushis have “screened” him from the advice they gave their respective clients.
What constitutes a conflict of interest
The solicitor gave the commissioners a different explanation of conflict of interest than the one they received from Hugg.