Sweeney Sues West Deptford Over Sunoco Settlement
The state Senate president accuses West Deptford officials of engaging in a "quid pro quo" for agreeing to settle tax appeals filed by the owners of Eagle Point refinery.
In the latest blow in the bitter battle between Republicans and Democrats in West Deptford, state Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney is suing his hometown government over a tax-appeals settlement he contends was illegal.
Sweeney, a Democrat, filed the lawsuit in state Superior Court in Woodbury on Oct. 25. The complaint names the township, Mayor Raymond Chintall, the township committee and the owners of Eagle Point refinery as defendants.
The lawsuit alleges that the Republican-controlled township made a $13.1 million settlement payment earlier this year to resolve years of tax appeals filed by Sunoco, owner of the shuttered refinery (the initial settlement amount was $15 million.) The township made a separate $18.5 million payment to Coastal, the former owner of the refinery, which is also named in the lawsuit.
The Sunoco payment was in exchange for a $750,000 donation by the company to buy two fire trucks for the township, making it "an unawlful quid pro quo," Sweeney alleges in the lawsuit.
The complaint was filed on Sweeney's behalf by attorney Kevin G. Walsh of the powerful and politically connected law firm Gibbons P.C. in Newark.
(To read the complaint, click of the PDF above.)
The lawsuit contends that the settlement failed to comply with a new state law sponsored by Sweeney, which requires owners of contaminated industrial properties who receive tax settlements to place the money in escrow accounts with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to help pay for environmental cleanup.
The complaint asks a judge to declare the settlements illegal and to order the money placed in an escrow account with the DEP.
In an interview Wednesday, Sweeney called the settlement "a bribe," and said of the current township government, "they did this for political gain, they left the site polluted with no intention of cleaning up.”
Sweeney, the state senate president, contends Sunoco proposed the donation of fire trucks to the township shortly before his legislation became law in July.
“They knew the legislation was coming,” he said. “They knew it. I live in the town, it was all over the news.”
Sweeney said his decision to file the lawsuit had nothing to do with politics.
“I want the money restored to the DEP and for the attorney general to look into this behavior. They have no right to say 'give me this, and I'll give you that.'”
Solicitor: no violation of the law
Chintall did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. But last month, when Sweeney called for an investigation into the settlements, Chintall wrote in an email to Patch, “If he had put this amount of concern and energy into saving the Eagle Point refinery and 400 jobs over two years ago and pushed to reintroduce the S1006 (2006 bill) so as to save the town from a large tax refund, then maybe all of this would be mute."
West Deptford Solicitor Anthony Ogozalek on Wednesday declined comment on the lawsuit, citing the township's policy on pending litigation.
Ogozalek explained previously that the state law, which Sweeney claims was violated, has two conditions in which the property must fall under. One, the property must be under a federal state remediation plan. Second, the property must be underutilized or vacant. However, there is no definition of underutilized.
Ogozalek said the tax appeal was based on the both the Cogen plant and the tank farm sections of Eagle Point. The Cogen plant is not under a federal remediation plan, so it does not fall under the statute, the attorney said. Ogozalek added that the other part of the refund, the tank farm, is neither vacant nor underutilized.
“It’s my position—or the township’s position that based on my opinion and research and the information submitted by various professionals, both technical or legal—that the Sunoco refund was not controlled by the conditions of the Senate bill,” Ogozalek said last month.