Few can argue against Michael Carvin's qualifications.
He's been a deputy Assistant Attorney General for the federal government. He's argued cases in front of the Supreme Court. He's handled civil rights cases and voting cases, and he was one of the attorneys who argued in front of the Florida Supreme Court in the infamous 2000 presidential race recount.
But he's also a long-time Republican and the brother of , and since Port Chester's Republican trustees to fight the Department of Justice this week, more than a few residents and local leaders are crying foul. Carvin, of the firm Jones Day, will now prepare to appeal a federal judge's decision that declared Port Chester in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Port Chester's initial legal battle with the justice department cost the village $1.2 million. Opponents of the decision to appeal say the new $225,000 legal bill could balloon and eventually rival what Port Chester has already spent, while proponents of the appeal point out that if Port Chester does not fight and win, the village is on the hook for another $500,000 in expenses: $125,000 to the civil rights lawyer who represented plaintiff Cesar Ruiz, and the rest to pay for education efforts and other costs associated with the next two elections.
The decision to hire Michael Carvin comes as the Town of Rye – which includes Port Chester – is taking a look at its own ethics policies.
"That's the brother of the Rye Town supervisor," resident Gene Ceccarelli said during Tuesday night's board meeting. "I don't know how they can justify that as they're going through their ethics review."
Greg Adams, a and member of the local NAACP chapter, agreed.
"How was this law firm picked? I don't know," he said. "But the relationship, to me, is a little bit uneasy."
Trustee Joseph Kenner, the Republican who , said despite appearances, Michael Carvin is the most qualified attorney to handle the case.
"He is Port Chester home-grown stock. He is doing this case because this is his home," Kenner said. "He does not need to take this case, which is why he has capped his fee. This is a discount. He is doing this because he cares about this village."
Kenner said Port Chester trustees interviewed two candidates–Carvin and Texas attorney Greg Coleman. Coleman, a former solicitor-general of Texas and high-powered partner of the YetterColeman law firm, died in November when a small private plane he was traveling in crashed into the water some 200 feet offshore in Okaloosa County, on Florida's panhandle.
Coleman's death meant the hiring decision defaulted to Carvin, but Kenner said trustees met and seriously considered both men. Despite appearances, Kenner said, the decision to hire Carvin was based on qualifications.
"The process we went through with selecting the attorneys was extremely thorough," he said. "We brought in two of the best attorneys in the country on the voting rights act."
Mayor Dennis Pilla disagrees. He said village policy requires a minimum of three bids, and the four Republican and Conservative trustees who voted for the appeal–Kenner, as well as Trustees Bart Didden, Sam Terenzi and John Branca–should have interviewed more than the minimum three candidates to dispel even the appearance of nepotism or a conflict-of-interest.
"Our purchasing policy is very clear. It says we need three bids," Pilla said. "And honestly, because it's the guy's brother, we should have gotten 10 bids."
Hiring Michael Carvin could hurt Port Chester's case, Pilla said, since the original decision painted Port Chester as an exclusionary village that disenfranchised minority voters in favor of insiders and a majority voting bloc. Pilla noted that another attorney representing Port Chester in the case, Anthony Piscionere, is the former chairman of the Rye Republican Party.
"This case is about our system looking closed," Pilla said. "It doesn't look closed when we bring in the Republican chairman and the Republican supervisor's brother to be the lawyers?"
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