MICHAEL PIERCE and Paul Hughes have a nice little operation going at their Delaware County law firm, Pierce & Hughes.
Some might even call it illegal.
For the past six years, Hughes has been performing legal work for Chester Heights, a borough of about 2,500 residents wedged between Middletown and Concord.
Pierce, a well-connected lawyer in local GOP circles and president-elect of the Delaware County Bar Association, happens to be president of the Chester Heights Council, where his duties include signing checks for professional services.
That puts Pierce in position to transfer thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds to his own firm. And that's exactly what he's been doing regularly since 2004, apparently without dissent from other council members.
"As a matter of course, I sign all the checks once they are approved by the board," Pierce said yesterday, adding that each check must be signed by two borough officials.
Pierce insists that he has abstained from every vote regarding payments to Hughes or their law firm - council meeting minutes do not support that claim - and that he had no role in the borough's decision to hire Hughes as litigation solicitor.
He might have to prove that to county detectives.
Yesterday, a tipster claiming to be a "deeply concerned" member of the county bar association, sent an anonymous letter to Delaware County District Attorney G. Michael Green, suggesting that Pierce repeatedly engaged in a conflict of interest, a potential felony offense under the state Ethics Act.
Green spokesman Erica Parham confirmed that the office had received the letter and supporting documentation that showed Hughes or their law firm has been paid at least $15,000 through April 2010. The figure could be higher because payments from 2006 were not included.
She said detectives from the Special Investigations Unit are reviewing the information to determine if it warrants a criminal probe.
Chester Heights records show that Pierce has abstained on votes every two years to appoint Hughes. But the council meeting minutes state that almost every vote by the all-Republican board to approve payments to Hughes or the Pierce & Hughes law firm were "unanimous."
Pierce, who called the situation "much to-do about nothing," said that he had an "ongoing abstention" on all votes related to Hughes or the firm. He said the description of "unanimous" votes in the borough records was not accurate.
"As president of the board, I really don't vote unless my vote is needed," Pierce said.
During a November 2007 meeting, the minutes state, Pierce abstained from voting to approve two payments to his firm. He wrote in a memo dated two days earlier that he would abstain "on all votes concerning the same." But the memo only referred to that meeting, and there is no mention in the minutes of him abstaining from similar votes at prior or subsequent meetings over the six-year period.
The arrangement appears shady from the get-go.
Records show that in January 2004, the board voted 6-0, with Pierce abstaining, to appoint "Paul Gordon Hughes, P.C.," referring to a professional corporation. But Pierce said yesterday that such a corporation doesn't exist and that it must be a typo. The first few checks in 2004, worth about $3,000 total, were written out to Hughes individually, but later checks have gone to "Pierce & Hughes," which is a 50/50 partnership between the attorneys.
Asked yesterday whether the firm split the Chester Heights income like other income it received, Pierce said: "I would imagine that it might be, which is the other reason that I abstain. Candidly, I've never thought about it from that end since I was abstaining from the voting."
It gets weirder.
Pierce's abstention memos that were dated in January 2006 and January 2010, when the council had voted to re-appoint Hughes, strongly appear to be photocopies, with only the dates and one word altered.
Pierce said yesterday that he "may have" photocopied some documents, but could not recall for sure. When asked if those forms were filed on the dates written, he said, "I would think so."
Pierce and Hughes are also partners in a tax-collection firm, Municipal Resource Recovery Systems, that has contracts with Darby Township, where Pierce has been solicitor since 1989, and Darby Borough, where Pierce served as solicitor until 2004.
"It's all public record," Pierce said, regarding the MRRS contracts. "It's not like there's anybody that's hiding behind any shield."
If Pierce voted to approve the Chester Heights payments to his firm, that might constitute a felony conflict-of-interest offense under the state Ethics Act. A former member of the Penn-Delco School Board pleaded "no contest" to that charge in 2007 for voting to approve school-district payments to his heating and air-conditioning company and accepting a small commission on the sale.
"I wouldn't vote on anything associated with Pierce & Hughes because obviously it would be a conflict," Pierce said.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, the government watchdog group, said such an arrangement is disturbing, regardless of whether Pierce was personally involved in sending taxpayer money to his firm.
"Elected officials should not be awarding contracts to companies with which they have a financial interest," Kauffman said.
"The firm is so small that there is, at the very least, the appearance of impropriety if he doesn't remove himself from the voting process," said Dana Harrington Conner, a Widener Law School professor who teaches courses on professional responsibility.
Conner said the decision to hire the board president's law firm or his partner "certainly invites a potential for a conflict of interest that could be problematic."
The borough hired Hughes for certain legal issues because the regular solicitor, Gerald Montella, is Delaware County's court administrator. That position creates a conflict for any matters that result in litigation regarding Chester Heights.
Montella said yesterday that he believed that Pierce had an "ongoing abstention" on any votes related to Hughes' work. He said if meeting records state differently, then they are incorrect.
"I believe everything is above board, absolutely, 100 percent," Montella said.
But Montella declined to comment on whether it would be a conflict for Pierce, as council president, to sign checks that are cashed by his own law firm.