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Borough solicitor’s lack of transparency unacceptable: Editorial

Posted 1/22/20

What recently transpired between the borough of Middletown and the borough’s solicitor, Eckert Seamans, is outrageous and unacceptable.

Members of Middletown Borough Council should be upset, …

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Borough solicitor’s lack of transparency unacceptable: Editorial

Posted

What recently transpired between the borough of Middletown and the borough’s solicitor, Eckert Seamans, is outrageous and unacceptable.

Members of Middletown Borough Council should be upset, and so should the borough’s residents.

Any borough must be able to trust its solicitor implicitly. Middletown pays Eckert Seamans a great deal of money (at least $345,000 in 2019) to represent the borough’s best legal interests.

But after what happened in December, we question whether that trust should be there.

In short, Eckert Seamans attorney Mark Stewart failed to disclose key information about his firm’s motives in a letter to Borough Manager Ken Klinepeter that outlined Eckert Seamans’ stance on what are known as “skill games” in Pennsylvania.

Here is the problem: The letter was sent not because of any issue with the games in the borough, but on behalf of Parx Casino in Bensalem, although that information was not disclosed in the letter. In fact, according to Stewart’s biography on the law firm’s website, he is “counsel to three of Pennsylvania’s 13 licensed casinos.”

It’s easy to see why those with a vested interest in casinos would oppose these skill games. There are only so many betting dollars to go around. The argument certainly can be made that each dollar spent on a skill game is one less dollar going to the casinos.

And while those casinos do fund gaming grants in our state, make no mistake about it: They are in business to make as much money as possible.

We encourage you to take a look at the letter dated Dec. 13. Read the entire thing.

The letter starts out: “We write regarding the proliferation of so-called “skill games” across the commonwealth.”

“We.” Right off the bat, how could this letter be taken any other way than being from the borough’s law firm?

Over the course of 10 paragraphs, Stewart outlines the arguments against the “illegal slot machines plaguing our communities.” It states that “these slot machines deprive county and local governments, as well as the commonwealth, of millions of dollars of gaming tax revenue each year.”

The letter asks that “you look at the substantial negative impact of these machines and make an informed decision to oppose their spread in your borough.”

“In our view,” the letter states near its conclusion, “municipal enforcement measures are necessary to protect our communities and our youth and seniors from continued expansion of these slot machines.”

The letter from Stewart even contained a draft ordinance for borough council to consider, which would make skill games illegal in the borough by declaring them a nuisance.

The letter makes all of this sound like serious business. But it’s missing that key paragraph that explains the reason why the letter was sent, and it’s not to look out for the best interests of the borough. It’s to protect the interests of Stewart’s other clients.

This is unacceptable and, in our view, alarming.

Stewart is not denying his intent. In a phone interview with the Press & Journal, he said he sent the letter and proposed ordinance not as a solicitor with Eckert Seamans representing Middletown, but on behalf of the firm’s representation of Parx Casino.

Law firms are free to represent a variety of clients. They must make money, after all. But to send a letter such as this to the borough and not identify its actual reason for doing so is highly questionable.

There is no doubt that both Klinepeter and Council President Angela Lloyd believed the letter was sent in Eckert Seamans’ role as the borough’s solicitor.

“Our solicitor has recommended that we draft or adopt an ordinance preventing these types of machines from being used in our borough,” Klinepeter said at council’s Dec. 17 meeting.

Lloyd told the Press & Journal on Jan. 8 she also did not know the letter was on behalf of the interests of Parx Casino, until the Press & Journal provided that information to Klinepeter.

In addition, attorney Jim Diamond, who attended the Dec. 17 meeting as solicitor representing Eckert Seamans, sat silent during Klinepeter’s discussion of the letter. He could have raised his hand and provided further clarification as to the intent of the letter, but he did not do so.

Stewart defended the letter by saying it was among 600-plus identical letters that were sent to municipalities all over Pennsylvania.

“This was a statewide effort sent to municipalities across the state that host casinos. It was not personalized to Middletown in any way. It is not where I’ve been directly communicating or advocating the issue with them,” Stewart said.

Except that Stewart said he did talk with “a few” borough councilors about the skill games issue before the Jan. 6 meeting — a meeting at which the proposal to ban the skill games was tabled after strong opposition from several fraternal organizations that have found the games to be quite popular.

And how could the borough know that this was a form letter and that Middletown wasn’t the only municipality to receive it? No mention is made of this in the letter, and it is addressed directly to Ken Klinepeter with the salutation of “Dear Ken.”

Stewart told us that neither he nor Eckert Seamans billed Middletown for any work related to the letter or the draft ordinance. That is a small consolation.

We believe that this action is serious enough to warrant discussion of the borough ending its relationship with Eckert Seamans. It has contracted with the firm since April 2017, when council voted to replace McNees Wallace & Nurick as solicitor.

The borough still has pending litigation against McNees, claiming that firm was negligent in its advice regarding the 2014 water and sewer lease with Suez.

At the very least, Eckert Seamans — and potentially Stewart — should apologize at a borough council meeting to both the council and the borough’s residents and businesses.

An old adage says that “trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.”

What steps will Eckert Seamans take to repair it?