Judge issues temporary restraining order blocking Princeton Council from rescinding contract with sewer repair company

Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson issued a temporary restraining order on Monday evening to stop the governing body of Princeton from rescinding a multi-million-dollar contract with a sewer repair contractor.

The Princeton Council was slated to rescind a $2.75 million contract for sewer rehabilitation work on Spruce Street and Linden Lane with Integrated Construction and Utilities of New Jersey (ICUNJ), an Edison-based company that does sewer repair, demolition, and asbestos abatement work. A container filled with bags of asbestos materials that was linked to the company was discovered by county and state officials at the municipal sewer department facility on River Road in early June. On June 12 — one day after the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued a notice of violation to the municipality for operating an illegal landfill at the River Road site — Princeton Administrator Marc Dashield sent a letter to ICUNJ saying the contract would be canceled.

ICUNJ filed a lawsuit against the town on June 28, contending that the company was directed by Princeton officials to leave the bags of asbestos-containing materials in a container at the sewer department site on River Road in order to avoid alarming residents. The company followed that procedure from 2008 to 2018, according to the owner, whose lawyer argued that therefore ICUNJ shouldn’t be punished for just following directions.

Lawyers for the town argued in a legal brief that ICUNJ representatives can’t say that they were just following orders, and that the contractor was aware of state regulations for asbestos removal and disposal. They also said the town has a video of ICUNJ placing a container on the River Road site.

In court, one part of the debate centered on the wording of a state statute regarding the disposal of asbestos. The statute says the materials must be transported directly “from the point of generation” to a solid waste landfill or transfer station that is permitted to receive such waste.

The lawyer for the contractor, Jeffrey Wilson of Florham Park, argued that the entire municipality could be deemed the point of generation. The lawyer for the municipality, Anthony Todaro, argued that the statute is clear and the municipal site is not the point of generation. Todaro cited the state statute, but did not provide any back-up documentation or certifications from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection regarding what the “point of generation” is or whether the state deems the storing of the container on the municipal property a violation of the statute.

Steven Eleftheriou, the owner of ICUNJ, said he started working with officials from the former Princeton Borough and Princeton Township back in 2004 when he was with another company, He said he directly started working with the two Princetons as the owner of ICUNJ in 2007, doing road repair work, storm drain work, paving, and municipal sewer line replacement work. Eleftheriou estimated that 75 percent of his business is from Princeton. The contract the council was slated to rescind was his largest ever in Princeton, he said.

“They have been the primary source of our revenues,” Eleftheriou said. “I’ve enjoyed working with Princeton, and offered a unique talent they appreciated, focused on Princeton.”

Eleftheriou said he has only received accolades for his work over the years, and has never been fined or been issued any kind of notice of violation. Princeton officials always found his work to be excellent, he said, and even sought him out for free expert advice. Emails he read from showed he has a close relationship with some of the municipal employees. They had nicknames for each other, and he said the municipal employees called him “Strike” because he knew how to knock out tasks. He often dealt with senior engineering and infrastructure employees, but also worked with sewer operating committee employees.

He said normally when removing asbestos-containing materials like the Transite sewer pipes in Princeton, signs would be placed on containers on site, warning people that there was asbestos in the containers. “We were told there is no way they would allow us to put them up,” Eleftheriou said. He said when he did put warning signs up, municipal employees removed them. Eleftheriou said former head of infrastructure Robert Hough told him he was “absolutely not going to put a dumpster on site.” 

“I was told it would cause alarm, and they didn’t want panic in the neighborhood,” Eleftheriou said, adding that he was told the municipality could provide a remote location for the asbestos container on River Road. He then produced an old email from 2008 or 2009 from a sewer operating committee employee that was copied to other engineering and sewer operating committee employees, directing him to place the asbestos materials at the River Road site.

Eleftheriou said once a container was full, a carrier would come and get it. A copy of the manifest was always provided to Princeton officials, he said.

One container, allegedly from ICUNJ’s last municipal project, is still at the River Road site more than a year later. Eleftheriou said the carrier that was supposed to pick up the container at site, Carnavale, went out of business. Another company, Champion, was supposed to pick up the container but never did, he said. The company was ready to pick up the container in June, Eleftheriou said, but was not allowed to remove the container. ICUNJ also has not been allowed to remove its trucks and equipment from the River Road site. He said all the vehicles and equipment were there in preparation for the next contract. Police secured the site in June after the Mercer County Prosecutor began an investigation into illegal dumping at the site that allegedly took place in exchange for kickbacks.

Jacobson pointed out that the lawyers for the municipality did not produce any documents or certifications from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection regarding the procedures for handling an asbestos container. She also noted that no citations have been issued to ICUNJ from the state or the municipality. Jacobson also pointed out that the container issue was related to past contracts, and not the current contract. The default clause for the contract that was cited for cancelling the contract refers to current contract issues, not past contracts, she said.

Typically, a default happens when a contractor goes bankrupt, is in financial trouble, or is behind and is unable to do the work, Jacobson said. “Those are the kinds of things we often see — financial problems leading to default,” she said. “I could not find anything where this kind of default had been claimed by a town to stop a project before any work had started.” She said she is not aware of a case where conduct under a prior contract is used as a basis for the default for a current contract where work has not yet begun. She also raised the issue of senior officials being aware of and directing ICUNJ to put the bags of asbestos in a container at the River Road site, and questioned whether people in multi-million dollar homes on Library Place would want to see a dumpster on their street for months.

A cancellation of the contract could do irreparable harm to ICUNJ, she said, noting that Eleftheriou has had a good relationship with town officials for more than a decade. The company has already spent money in preparation for contract work, and Eleftheriou said his business would go under if the contract is allowed to be canceled.

Jacobson told the lawyers for both sides to talk and figure out next steps in the case, and let her know how to proceed, and whether the court would need to schedule a case management conference.

During the hearing, the lawyer for ICUNJ tried to have the reporter from Planet Princeton thrown out, saying reporters shouldn’t be allowed to attend the hearing. “This is an open court,” Jacobson said, noting that lawyers had not filed a motion to make the proceedings closed to the public. The lawyer for the municipality chatted with ICUNJ lawyer and tapped him on the shoulder, and a few minutes later they both approached the judge for a sidebar conversation, appearing to again unsuccessfully request that the reporter be removed from the courtroom.

Please share your thoughts on this story.

18 comments
  • It’s worth noting how quick our local elected officials are to post warm and fuzzy things on social media about national & international issues, about Trump, and about how they feel about the national climate. While many of these issues are important to most of us, our elected officials have no grasp and no urgency about the day to day operations of our town. They have no urgency to get even the basics right and more specifically they clearly aren’t aware that the leadership they’ve put in place lacks the urgency, accountability, or wherewithal to manage the daily operation effectively. When the person in charge of ALL departments and employees (in this case Dashield) isn’t being held accountable by his superiors (Mayor and Council), isn’t urgent about anything, isn’t respected by the 200+ employees and lacks credibility in any form of fashion then what does anyone expect here? Expect filthy street and downtown area. Expect corruption. Expect dysfunction. Expect waste. Expect bloated budgets. Expect lack of follow through. Expect the example from the top to filter all the way to the bottom. But, at least our elected officials love bike lanes, parklets, food composting (another failed and expensive project) and Palmer Square rallies. Let’s please get focused on what matters in our day to day lives here in town. I don’t mind paying the big taxes if I can feel like it’s money well spent on a well run operation.

  • @increasingly yes ICUNJ definitely is on the hook for part of this but the taxpayers will take the biggest hit. Already, 165k for consultant, countless legal hours spent on ICUNJ lawsuit, fighting off OPRA requests and who knows what else. We should probably expect Robert Hough to sue town at some point and the town often pays out on these lawsuits (paid Bill Drake recently). In addition, DEP fines are coming at town and then of course the big one which is cleanup cost shock will be multiple millions. Town leaders should be cringing. As voters, we will decide fate of Lempert in 2020 as well as Cohen and Fraga. In the interim, let’s hope Mayor and Council come to their senses and respectfully send Mr. Dashield on his way. It’s been a failed experiment with multiple snafus both operationally and personnel wise on his watch. Do the right thing elected officials. Put a leader in place that will run a tight operation, hold staff accountable yet be an uplifting, empowering leader for the staff. It starts at the top always.

  • I don’t care if it was Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer or Benito Mussolini who reported this, and neither will the DEP, prosecutors, or anyone else. How and why the wrongdoing came to light is irrelevant, actually. ICUNJ better have some spectacular insurance. They’ll need it.

  • Hold up there, pal: you obviously don’t pay attention to all the comments; the term “whistle blower” is use more than once throughout multiple comments posted on various associated articles, and in one apparently intimate rant (which fits the description of an insider), the [whistle blower] is referred to in the singular and masculine tense, including nuances of involvement in wrongdoing.

    Furthermore, terminating the junior employee is in no way a substitute for censure; you must know he’s going to vent, and if he was terminated for coming forth about the “whistle blower’s” misconduct, then appropriately so. And what of all the other employees, still fearful of loosing their job?

    So you see, chief, or wannabe? If we lived in a vacuum, maybe then your logic would cut the muster. Fortunately we don’t, and despite efforts like yours to cover things up, the public will not be satisfied with clichés and pats on the back.

    BTW, is it wrong to demand vetting such allegations, just in case they actually have merit?

  • If anyone here has been truly following this story I talked about the so called source/whistleblower/bully just not into that details of his exact illegal activities. I pointed out all of the other BS he ran to the paper with such as staged photographs and elaborate stories of misdeeds. So now there’s at least one other who knows that this has been a vendetta against a contractor, who as I’ve said before, that his son was laid off a few years back. It’s just sad that he is using the town as his arena and officials as his puppets.

  • Dashield Grosser and Lempert get a massive NO CONFIDENCE vote from majority of those who work here. They aren’t honest. They don’t follow through. They lie to our faces and laugh behind our backs. No respect or trust for them. Only way you avoid that treatment is to drink their kool aid and nod yes to every single thing they ever say. It’s very cult like.

  • Yeah, you got me: I’m the whistle blower. Tweet tweet. Stop polluting. Tweet.

    But seriously. Let’s start with this: What is it that makes you think there is “a” whistle blower, let alone think that you know his/her identity? None of the coverage I’ve read has alluded to any such individual. If discussion of a whistle blower has occurred outside the anonymous confines of the comments section of this site, I haven’t seen it.

    It therefore appears as though the only place you could be getting such info is from somewhere on the inside of this scandal, and the only logical interest you could have in spreading accusations of drug abuse, questionable motives, etc. on the part of this thus-far notional whistle blower, is to spin things in order to defend either yourself or your cronies. Doesn’t matter in the end. Everyone associated with this, whether that includes you or not, is going to go down hard regardless, and rightfully so.

  • Hold up, there: If this proves to be unfounded hearsay, then so be it; but if there’s an ounce of truth to any of this, the public should know. Or are you suggesting you have credible information whereby you are able to say, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that there is no truth to any of this? And if so, “where are you getting this?” Are you perhaps the whistle blower? Or one of their confidantes?

  • A lot of insinuations and allegations here regarding some unnamed but apparently suspected “whistle blower.” Where are you getting this? Are you among the malefactors, now attempting to discredit the witness against you? Sure looks that way, pal.

  • Completely agree, there must be transparency. Especially on the following points:

    Did officials, not only authorize but, for a decade mandate the collection of Transite at the River Road location to avoid alarming local residents?
    Did officials attempt to scapegoat, as this court case suggests, once public awareness resulted in outrage?
    Did officials prematurely react on reliance upon unfounded (active investigation) information improperly offered by local police investigators?
    Are the allegations concerning the Whistle blower being investigated:
    -Theft and sale of municipal property to fuel a personal drug addiction,
    -Coercing junior employees into illegally purchasing controlled substances to satisfy an addiction (that junior employee now terminated after willingly coming forth),
    -Actively participating for years in the alleged illegal dumping and kickback scandal,
    -Protecting an otherwise culpable whistleblower against prosecution in exchange for information (which may be fabricated to secure immunity).

    Perhaps PP you can help shed some clarity by asking the tough questions, because we want to know!

  • I think Mayor Lempert should publicly announce that Princeton supports complete transparency and open processes, as permitted by law, as this process continues.

  • Incredibly sketchy and counter to any ethos of transparency to try to have you ejected. The town comes off worse and worse every day. This is very serious business and I urge you not to be deterred. Follow this wherever it goes.

    Sleep well, Liz!

  • Everyday gets worse and worse. Everybody is looking bad, the government and the environmentalists, all of them have lost credibility. This is an epic mess.

  • Looks like rapid environmentalists have painted themselves into a corner. Asbestos is too scary to look at, touch, or store. Unfortunately, the whole town will have to pay for this.

  • This situation just keeps getting worse ICUNJ clearly won this round. Why? Lack of preparation – e.g. no documents? Lack of material useful input, assuming any exists, from the people who are charged with running things here and managing our financial resources and who made the decision being challenged? Or were we just out-gunned – Atty. Wilson reportedly has more than 25 years representing contractors while Atty. Todaro graduated from law school in 2016 according to MG&P’s website. (I certainly hope counsel for a town as committed to press freedom as we are didn’t do what PP suspects. Although I suspect that’s exactly what happened.)

    And is there any truth to the allegation that Princeton officials actively tried to prevent impacted residents from learning that asbestos was being removed during the projects mentioned in the complaint? Shameful if that accusation is accurate.

    How much more are we going to have to pay – in both environmental and economic damage – because of apparent negligence and bad decision making before this is resolved? And when are we going to get some real answers?

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