Borough attorney acted improperly, says court seven years later

Sussex. The New Jersey Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Review Board delivered an admonishment, the lowest disciplinary action it takes against attorneys, to John Ursin, who currently represents Franklin and Hopatcong.

Sussex /
| 31 Aug 2021 | 08:57

An attorney who represents several municipalities in Sussex County was admonished in connection with a long-ago conflict of interest case.

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Review Board on July 22 concluded that John Ursin’s conduct was “improper.” It cites his conflict in representing Sussex Borough and while also representing another client in the same case, as well as his “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”

The board dismissed two other violations brought against Ursin.

Ursin received an admonition, which is the lowest disciplinary action the board takes against attorneys. Ursin, who currently represents the municipalities of Franklin and Hopatcong, said it’s the only time he’s ever been disciplined in his 27 years of practicing law.

The board found “substantial mitigation” weighing in Ursin’s favor. It noted that at the time of his misconduct, in 2011-13, Ursin had been an attorney for more than 20 years “with an unblemished disciplinary history” and service to both the bar association and the community.

The board also found no harm done as a result of Ursin’s conduct. The borough received full reimbursement for a lien it held against the Sussex Inn. In turn, the Sussex Inn — owned at the time by Chris Parrott, who was then the Sussex Borough mayor — received double the initial offer from the New Jersey Department of Transportation for a slice of land needed to rework a right-of-way on Route 23.

“Thus,” the board wrote, “it appears that neither party affected by the conflict suffered financial harm.”

The board also noted the many years that have passed since Ursin’s misconduct. It pointed to court precedent holding that the public’s interest in prompt discipline is “irretrievably diluted by the passage of time.” The “extraordinary delay” in initiating proceedings warrants “significantly lesser discipline,” the board wrote.

‘I respect the process and the decision’

Ursin told the paper that the original complaint was filed by a “litigation adversary with his own agenda.”

He said that in his 27 years of practicing law, “I have always strived to a high level of professional conduct and I have never had a client make an ethical complaint.”

He said at the time he did not believe his representation of the Sussex Inn was likely to create any conflict with his representation of the borough. “In fact, the condemnation case concluded favorably to my client and the borough was promptly paid all of the back taxes owed out of the proceeds,” he said.

“The ethics panel analyzed whether my representations created a conflict primarily using a ‘substantial risk’ standard,” said Ursin. “Despite the favorable results for both clients, the board concluded that my representation was a conflict and issued an admonishment, which is the lowest sanction appropriate for minor violations where there was no harm to the clients.”

Ursin said he respects the court’s decision. “I accepted the decision and decided not to appeal based upon the fact that this matter dates back to 2012 and the fact that this is the lowest level of discipline,” he said. “I am focused on continuing to represent my clients with the highest level of skill and professionalism.”

The Sussex Inn had fallen behind in its taxes and other municipal bills. At a borough meeting on April 5, 2011, the public asked if the mayor, Chris Parrott, was receiving special treatment, and if he had hired Ursin to represent him as the owner of the Sussex Inn. Ursin replied that he “absolutely did not.”
One year later, the borough council passed an ordinance requiring anyone with a political position in the borough have their water/sewer bills and taxes fully paid up and kept current.
Parrott left office in March 2012. Ursin continued to represent the Sussex Inn while serving as borough attorney, even after the borough was a named party to the state’s condemnation of a slice of the inn’s property. Ursin helped Parrott negotiate a $515,000 deal with the transportation department.
Jesse Wolosky of Sparta sought to buy the Sussex Inn tax lien after Parrott was no longer mayor. There were no other bidders. In the spring of 2013, the borough council told Ursin “to negotiate an agreement” with Wolosky.
Ursin did not disclose that he was also representing the Sussex Inn in the condemnation action.
Via emails and letters, Ursin slowed down the assignment of the Sussex Inn certificate, even though borough attorneys do not handle such actions, according to the Supreme Court Ethics Committee for District XA.
The eminent domain action was ultimately settled in the summer of 2013.
Ursin then tried to negotiate simultaneously how the money would be distributed both to the borough and the inn. One check went to the Sussex Inn and another to the borough to cover the inn’s taxes and bills in arrears.
Judge Thomas Weisenbeck entered an order in December 2013 requiring that the borough be paid first and in full.
The dual representation continued until Parrott’s ex-wife contested the priority of the payments.
“This action placed the borough’s priority to the money at jeopardy,” according to the complaint by the Supreme Court’s Ethics Committee. “Within 48 hours, Ursin and his firm withdrew from representing Sussex Inn in the NJDOT Condemnation Action.”
Ursin delayed telling the council of his dual representation and only informed the new mayor, Jonathan Rose, after the condemnation matter was settled. In January 2014, the borough council voted Ursin out as borough attorney, 4-3, with Rose casting the deciding vote.