DRPA concludes aftermath of Lawless ouster

Posted: May 18, 2013

The Delaware River Port Authority has finally concluded its long-running dispute with former corporate secretary John Lawless, two months after a preliminary settlement was reached.

Lawless, a former Pennsylvania legislator, was escorted by DRPA police from his office at the agency's Camden headquarters on April 23, 2010, sparking a lengthy legal battle.

Lawless sued, contending he was fired for taking two weeks off in December 2009 to seek treatment for alcoholism.

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

After spending more than a half-million dollars in fees to outside lawyers, the DRPA agreed to settle by paying Lawless one year's salary, $123,806.

U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois cited the settlement in dismissing Lawless' suit March 4. But the sides had been wrangling over the precise terms of the settlement and the wording of its announcement ever since.

On Thursday, the DRPA posted a brief announcement on its website saying that "the settlement is neither an admission of fault by either the DRPA or Mr. Lawless nor an acknowledgment of liability on the part of the DRPA."

"It was the decision of the parties to avoid the cost and uncertainty of future litigation and trial," the statement said.

Lawless was an ally of State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, the powerful Philadelphia Democrat who was influential for years at the DRPA. Lawless became 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 Treasurer Rob McCord - warned that the action could result in costly litigation. That turned out to be true.

The DRPA paid more than $500,000 to five 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.


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

Clarification: An article published Saturday, May 18, about a legal settlement in the departure of John Lawless as corporate secretary of the Delaware River Port Authority did not include this sentence from the parties’ joint statement: “Because of the sensitive nature of Mr. Lawless’ position, he was escorted from the building by DRPA Public Safety personnel on the day of his separation in April 2010, a standard DRPA practice in such cases.”

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