Accounting filed by attorneys for ‘pro-bono' work done Lenape Indians

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:50

    VERNON-The township council received a shock Monday night when Vernon's municipal attorney, Joseph Ragno Jr., told the body he had received a bill for $700,000 in legal fees from the law firm that represented the Lenape Indians in the fight over Maple Grange Park. The legal case, which never came to a full trial, resulted in a large portion of land purchased by the township for development as a park being protected as a national and state history site. The protected land contains literally thousands of Native American artifacts dating back at least 8,000 years. The town's fight was first over the historic significance of the tract and then over how large it should be. Eventually, the main historic site of approximately 40 acres was doubled in size. As the battle was going on, the township negotiated to swap the Maple Grange tract for a similarly sized tract at the corner of Route 94 and Maple Grange Road owned by the Van Dokkenberg family. Just this year, the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection agreed to purchase the historic site and allow the town to develop the remainder of the Maple Grange plot as recreational fields. That seemed to end a controversy that had bitterly divided the town n until the Lenape's legal counsel sent a bill. The law firm, Piper Rudnick, had originally agreed to represent the Lenape pro bono n without compensation. But apparently the firm decided that because it agreed not to charge the Native Americans it didn't mean it couldn't try to charge the township. "Vernon has no intention of paying Piper Rudnick anything," said an angry Councilman Neil Desmond. "It's my hope that the judge will see this for nothing more than what it is n a shakedown of the Vernon taxpayers." Ragno, who must explain to New Jersey Superior Court why the township should not be obligated for the Lenape legal fees, said that the accounting he received showed what he thought to be multiple billings for the same services. He also noted that in one month of the accounting, he charged Vernon for 59 hours of work while Piper Rudnick charged for more than 500 hours. "It's difficult to understand how a legal firm should be asking for any money based on fact they said they were representing Native Americans pro bono," Desmond said. "The township council has no intention of acquiescing and paying $700,000."