Faces the same despite changes among firms, municipalities

By Stuart R. Wahlin
Staff Writer

The more things change, the saying goes, the more they stay the same. The Village of Roscoe is a perfect example. Although Roscoe distanced itself in 2006 from Nicolosi & Associates by terminating the firm as legal counsel, the village continues to surround itself with the same circle of individuals that may have posed the alleged conflict of interest in the first place.

In December 2006, then-Village President Ward Sterett (I) cited an alleged conflict of interest having arisen from the law firm’s concurrent representation of Roscoe’s neighbor, the Village of Rockton. At the time, the municipalities were fighting over land to be annexed for RBR Trucking, and it was determined by the board that the firm should not be serving two masters with disputed borders.

Meantime, Nicolosi & Associates had also been awarded a $355,000 shared contract with Chicago-based Camiros, Ltd., for work related to development of the county’s 2030 land-use plan, which meant to Sterett that the firm was “involved in too many things.”

Sterett described the parting of ways as firing the firm before it could quit. Paul S. Nicolosi, a partner in the law firm and principal of the Buckley Companies, LLC, along with Gino Galluzzo, said, however, that his firm’s decision to end the relationship had nothing to do with an alleged conflict of interest. He also acknowledged that Kurlinkus had considered branching off for some time, and that it made sense for Kurlinkus to remain village attorney in Roscoe, while Nicolosi & Associates would bow out gracefully.

According to Sterett, the firm was being paid more than $100,000 per year as village counsel.

Although the firm’s loyalty had been decided in the matter, Galluzzo and Nicolosi found themselves under scrutiny back in Rockton, where mailers advertising Buckley retail properties in other communities were received by business owners in the village. Galluzzo publicly apologized for the incident, promising Rockton ZIP codes would be omitted from future Buckley solicitations. Another advertisement was mailed, however, allegedly before the Rockton ZIP codes were purged from Buckley’s distribution list. Galluzzo publicly apologized again, but it wasn’t the last time mailings sent through Buckley would cause a stir.

It was later learned political literature related to candidates for the 2007 Hononegah School District elections had anonymously originated from a postal meter number belonging to Buckley Construction. The mailer endorsed candidates Kurlinkus, Matt Kentner and Mary Lewis, while maligning a fourth candidate, Kim Hodges. Nicolosi told The Rock River Times the mailer had been commissioned by a third party he would not identify. Kurlinkus, Kentner and Lewis, who won after running as a slate against Hodges, denied any connection to the mailing.

An investigation into the origin of the anonymous political literature fizzled out after state officials estimated the cost of the mailer would likely have been below the $3,000 threshold at which a political committee must be formally established.

In 2007, the firm ended its relatively short relationship with the Village of Caledonia, too. In the spring of 2005, Nicolosi & Associates took over as attorneys for Caledonia. According to village documents, the firm earned $101,614 for the partial year as counsel. Total village revenues for 2005 were reported to be $220,582. The village’s levy ordinance estimated legal expenses of only $10,000 for that year, however, resulting in legal fees being paid from other program funds.

The firm was also reportedly paid $270,684.99 by developers for work related to the proposed Caledonia Crossings subdivision project. Meantime, however, the village has since been involved in arbitration with Bassett Management and Centex, which never proceeded with the subdivision, to recover $30,000 owed to local engineering firm McMahon Associates, Inc.

In 2007, while Aaron Szeto represented Nicolosi as village attorney, trustees debated the legality of increasing fees charged for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. At the time, Caledonia was inundated with such requests. Under law, an individual may not be charged for time spent compiling and copying the documents pursuant to FOIA. Soon after Szeto noted that the village may only charge the public for the printing cost of the requested copies, the Nicolosi firm withdrew as legal counsel for cash-strapped Caledonia.

Szeto is now employed by Barrick, Switzer, Long, Balsley and Van Evera, LLP.

Although some local attorneys have changed home bases recently, the overall complexion of municipal legal counsel in this growing area of Winnebago County remains relatively unchanged.

Roscoe’s penchant for Nicolosi, Buckley alumni

Fears of a potential conflict were averted when Kurlinkus, a longtime Nicolosi attorney and partner, ventured away from the firm to start his own practice. Kurlinkus, also president of the Hononegah School Board, later passed the practice’s reins on to his son as village attorney when Kurlinkus was appointed by State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato (D) to oversee the office’s civil division. Josef Kurlinkus, also a former Nicolosi & Associates employee, took over as Roscoe’s village attorney in 2009 at a cost of approximately $8,000 per month.

Previously, in 2007, Roscoe trustees underwent Open Meetings ACT (OMA) training at the suggestion of the Illinois Attorney General’s office after the elder Kurlinkus, Village President David Krienke (R), trustees Stan Smith and Scott Richardson, developer Andy Rhead and Rock River Water Reclamation District Director Steve Graceffa, a former board member, allegedly met behind closed doors to discuss village business. A quorum had been established by the presence of the board members within the Village Hall conference room, but the meeting occurred without public notice. Krienke described the OMA violation as inadvertent, noting the meeting was only intended to be among himself, Rhead and Kurlinkus.

The following year, the attorney general’s office also looked into allegations of another OMA violation in Roscoe, but the agency concluded there was no evidence of wrongdoing. Similar allegations were levied in 2009.

Nicolosi, meantime, still provides municipal counsel to Loves Park and Rockton. The firm’s partners, Nicolosi and Galluzzo, are also the top brass for its affiliate, the Buckley Companies.

Despite previous reservations regarding potentially conflicting interests, Roscoe trustees voted July 1 to approve the negotiation of a contract with Buckley to serve as a tax increment financing (TIF) district consultant for a proposed TIF district on the former Warner Electric Brake & Clutch site along McCurry Road. The area has been the focus of cleanup efforts led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since groundwater contamination was identified in the early 1980s. The cleanup appears to have neared completion, and a final remedy proposed by Warner will be reviewed by the EPA this summer.

Buckley, according to Krienke, would focus primarily on feasibility and eligibility studies, as well as the proposed TIF district’s redevelopment plan.

“That is, they will be doing the work of studying the site to determine if it fits the criteria for a TIF, and what increments may become available for redevelopment use,” Krienke added.

The Buckley principals are no strangers to the process of TIF creation. Their law firm witnessed the establishment of Loves Park’s first TIF district. Because city attorneys Galluzzo and Nicolosi, through Buckley, had a conflicting interest in the proposed district, Tom Green was brought in as outside TIF counsel for the project.

After receiving financial incentives through the issuance of bonds for the TIF, Buckley constructed a strip mall on the former sites of the Hollywood and Top Hat restaurants. Although tenants for the mall remain scarce, Loves Park is still banking on economic growth within the TIF, which is needed to offset the bond debt incurred to get the district started.

The law firm was also instrumental in the implementation of TIF in Rockton, but Roscoe still missed Nicolosi’s rising stars.

June 17, Roscoe trustees voted to hire another familiar face from the Nicolosi & Associates law firm. Former Nicolosi attorney Roxanne Sosnowski, now with Barrick, Switzer, Long, Balsley and Van Evera, LLP, was hired at a rate of $200 per hour to perform legal services related to the creation of the proposed TIF district.

Krienke explained: “Their services will include, among others, the drafting of ordinances, resolutions, notices, attending statutorily required hearings and meetings. They will also participate in negotiating and drafting the redevelopment agreement with the property developer and any required intergovernmental agreements that may go along with the project.  Essentially, all legal work pertaining to the project.”

For a village concerned in recent years with potential conflicts of interest, either real or perceived, Roscoe continues to keep the same company. Despite the prior relationships among the village, its past and present attorney, its TIF counsel and the proposed TIF consultant, Krienke stressed he has “full confidence in the integrity of our legal counsel and village consultants.”

Sosnowski, appointed in 2008 as an assistant prosecutor by Boone County State’s Attorney Michelle Courier, also serves as campaign treasurer for her husband, Joe, who is running for state representative. Szeto serves as Sosnowski’s campaign chairman.

Mr. Buckley goes to Springfield?

Rockford Ald. Joe Sosnowski (R-2), seeking the seat being vacated by Rep. Ron Wait (R-69), is Buckley’s former vice president of commercial real estate. Sosnowski left the company in 2008 and accepted a director of institutional advancement position for fund-raising efforts on behalf of Rockford Christian Schools.

Despite this migration of former employees of Buckley and its affiliate, no hard feelings are apparent.

Earlier this year, the Sosnowski campaign received a $500 contribution from Zagreb, LLC, for which Nicolosi is listed as the LLC agent, according to state records. Representatives of Nicolosi & Associates, along with its Buckley affiliates, have been notable campaign contributors, primarily to Republican coffers. Naturally, the group financially supported the election campaign of Phil Nicolosi, who’d also been employed by the law firm, after his appointment to state’s attorney when Paul Logli ended his long tenure in the office. Nicolosi was defeated by fellow Republican attorney Chuck Prorok in the primary, however, and Prorok fell to Bruscato in the general election.

From the July 7-13, 2010 issue

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