DRPA settles dispute over Lawless firing

John Lawless: Board axed job he once held.
John Lawless: Board axed job he once held.
Posted: March 21, 2013

After spending more than a half-million dollars in legal fees, the Delaware River Port Authority has settled a long-running dispute over the firing of its corporate secretary, former Pennsylvania legislator John Lawless.

Lawless was escorted by DRPA police from his office at the DRPA's Camden headquarters on April 23, 2010, sparking a lengthy legal battle that was settled out of court this month. U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois cited the settlement in dismissing Lawless' suit March 4.

Although details were not disclosed, Lawless reportedly received about a year's salary. He was being paid $123,806 a year at the time of his dismissal.

Lawless, 55, contended in his suit that he was fired after he took two weeks off in December 2009 to seek treatment for alcoholism.

The DRPA, in its filings, denied that and said that Lawless' position was a "political placement" and that he "was removed from that position for political reasons."

Lawless was an ally of State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, the powerful Philadelphia Democrat who was influential for years at the DRPA. Fumo installed Lawless as corporate secretary in 2004, a job that had him organize board meetings and oversee DRPA headquarters.

Fumo went to federal prison in 2009, convicted of 137 corruption charges related to the misuse of public funds during his Senate tenure.

Lawless was elected to the Pennsylvania House as a Democrat in 1990, but joined the Republican Party before taking office.

In 2001, Lawless switched back to the Democratic Party. He lost a bid in 2002 for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor and narrowly lost reelection to the Senate that year.

Lawless also figured in a controversy that ultimately led to the end of free bridge crossings for most DRPA workers and sparked demands for wide-ranging change at the agency.

Lawless had lent his E-ZPass transponder to DRPA safety chief Michael Joyce of Pennsauken, whose daughter used it for free bridge crossings to attend high school in Lower Merion.

In the wake of that disclosure, Joyce was forced to resign his $180,081-a-year post, and Gov. Christie demanded an end to free rides for employees of the DRPA and other toll agencies.

When a divided DRPA board voted in August 2010 to dump Lawless and merge his job with that of the agency's chief lawyer, the dissenting board members - including former Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner and Pennsylvania state Treasurer Rob McCord - warned the action could result in costly litigation. That turned out to be the case.

The DRPA paid more than $500,000 to five law firms to defend Lawless' firing.

Most of the money - more than $370,000 - went to Stevens & Lee, according to DRPA billing records obtained by The Inquirer.

About $70,000 went to Jackson Lewis, and smaller amounts to Archer & Greiner, Brown & Connery, and Duane Morris, the records show.

All of the firms are active political players - and contributors - in Pennsylvania and South Jersey.

DRPA officials declined to comment on the Lawless case or the amount of money spent on legal fees.

"We do not discuss ongoing litigation," said spokesman Tim Ireland, declining to specify how a settled case qualified as "ongoing litigation."

Lawless declined to comment, and his attorney, Michael Salmanson of Philadelphia, did not return calls for comment on the case.

Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.