This story has been updated.
West Haven’s corporation counsel has over the past three years funneled city work to his own private law firm, enabling him and his wife to represent the city in foreclosure cases and to bill up to $225 per hour for their services.
As West Haven’s top attorney, Lee Tiernan has the power to hire outside counsel to assist the city in legal matters. But public documents show he used that authority to assign work to his wife, Amanda Tiernan, through a private law practice that bears his name.
The arrangement is now drawing scrutiny. Moments after this story initially published Tuesday afternoon, West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi suspended Tiernan, for purportedly not filling out an ethics report properly.
And a state legislator who represents the city called the arrangement unethical and wrong.
“A top official engaging in conflicts of interest for personal gain is exactly the type of bad, inherent culture the MARB has been harping on,” said Rep. Dorinda Borer, D-West Haven, referring to the state Municipal Accountability Review Board that has been overseeing the city’s finances for years. “But clearly their calls for change are not resonating. The only way this is going to change is a clean sweep.”
State court records indicate Tiernan appointed his wife to represent West Haven in at least 10 different court cases between 2020 and 2022 in which the city sought to foreclose on various properties for back taxes.
In return for that legal representation, the court filings show, she collected more than $18,000 in attorney’s fees for roughly 93 hours of work.
Tiernan, who has served as the city’s corporation counsel since 2018, said there was nothing wrong with the arrangement and he told the CT Mirror that Rossi approved the setup because she could not increase his roughly $90,000 salary.
“It was just a little bit of work,” Tiernan said. “The mayor approved it because she wasn’t able to give me a raise.”
Tiernan said that Rossi asked him specifically whether there was any city legal work that he could assign to himself as a private attorney.
Rossi, who is already under fire after $1.2 million was embezzled from the city under her leadership, placed Tiernan on unpaid suspension until May 4.
“I have reviewed your ethics form and relevant documents,” she wrote. “I have determined that your ethics form was not filled out properly.”
Attached to the suspension letter that Rossi sent to the CT Mirror were responses to a number of questions the CT Mirror had asked Monday afternoon, but most of her responses redirected the questions to Tiernan. She did offer that neither the city council chairman nor the finance chair said they were aware of the arrangement.
Most city contracts worth more than $10,000 are required to go through a public bidding process before West Haven officials can award the work to an outside business. Those rules are meant to ensure the city gets the best deal for West Haven taxpayers.
But Tiernan pointed out that outside legal services approved by either the corporation counsel or the mayor are not required to go through that same process, according to the city’s purchasing ordinance.
As a result, Tiernan said, he did nothing wrong by awarding the foreclosure cases to his wife and their law firm. He also argued that there was no conflict created by his oversight of that work because a state judge ultimately approved the thousands of dollars in legal fees that his wife billed for each foreclosure case.
“The Law Office of Lee K. Tiernan, LLC did foreclosure work for the city. The mayor approved,” Tiernan wrote in an email. “All attorney invoices are approved by an independent third party, a judge.”
Even so, Tiernan told the CT Mirror this week that any new foreclosure cases were being assigned to different law firms.
‘A blatant violation’
Other public officials in West Haven argued that Tiernan’s actions clearly violated the city’s laws and basic ethical norms.
“These actions are a blatant violation of the city charter. They are unethical and are just plain wrong,” Borer said.
Borer pointed out that the city charter states that “no city official or city employee shall accept any benefit or income, in addition to that received in his official capacity, for having exercised his official powers or performed his official duties.”
Tiernan’s explanation that the legal work was meant to supplement his salary made matters even worse, Borer said. She said it suggested that he and the mayor sought to circumvent the city council, which sets the compensation levels for West Haven employees.
Borer, who was first elected to the legislature in 2017, said the entire episode is just one more example of the serious problems plaguing West Haven‘s government, which controls the tax rates for roughly 55,000 city residents and administers an annual budget of more than $160 million.
The state Municipal Accountability Review Board has overseen parts of the city’s finances for more than five years.
That board ratcheted up its oversight even further last year after the FBI arrested Michael DiMassa, a former state lawmaker and city employee, for stealing more than $1.2 million out of the city’s finance department by using shell companies and phony invoices. He and three other defendants were convicted as part of that embezzlement scheme.
Since then, members of the MARB have continued to complain about the culture in West Haven city hall and the city’s continued failure to implement policies and procedures that are meant to protect against waste, fraud and abuse.
Those frustrations prompted several MARB members earlier this year to discuss whether a full state takeover was necessary in West Haven.
Jeffrey Beckham, who serves as Gov. Ned Lamont’s state budget director and the chairman of the MARB, declined through his staff to comment for this story.
State officials were told of arrangement
The state oversight board last year asked West Haven officials to turn over ethics disclosures for many of the city’s top elected leaders in an attempt to unearth any potential conflicts of interest or self-dealing that might exist within the local government.
As part of those disclosures, the city provided OPM officials and the MARB with a one-page memo, written by Tiernan, that explained how Tiernan and his family members had direct or indirect business relationships with the city.
That memo from June 2022 noted that the law firm where Tiernan’s brother works was conducting legal work for the city. It said that Tiernan was also being paid as a private attorney through a federal grant the city helps to administer. And it described how Tiernan’s private law firm was processing the foreclosures for the city — though he did not explain in the document that his wife was the attorney performing that work.
Tiernan defended those relationships in the memo by emphasizing that the money the firm collected from the private legal work did not impact the overall city budget, and he explained repeatedly that Rossi, his boss, approved all of it.
“The foreclosures generate income for the city, and the city budget is not in any way impacted by the payments,” he wrote. “My supervisor, the mayor of the city of West Haven, approved and approves of this arrangement.”
Borer, the state lawmaker from West Haven, said those types of ethics disclosures are good, but they don’t achieve anything if local and state officials don’t act on the information in the filings.
“Having ethics forms are important, but if no one is questioning the red flags the forms are meant to identify and no one is stopping the obvious conflicts of interest listed on the forms, the process isn’t working,” Borer said.
The foreclosure cases are not the only way Tiernan’s family income got a boost from the city in recent years.
He was also one of several appointed officials in West Haven who received compensation time payouts that were initially funded using federal pandemic relief funding.
Two different audits commissioned by the state Office of Policy and Management determined that those compensation time payouts were not eligible expenses for the pandemic relief funding. And both said that Tiernan attempted to justify those expenditures using hours recorded prior to the pandemic.