(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007.)
(Juliet Fletcher and I reported a series of investigative stories in Vineland in late 2007 and early 2008. She was a new reporter, so I joined her for the stories on her beat.)
City officials failed to enforce deed restrictions on properties sold at public auction to three people with ties to City Hall.
All three buyers had connections to Business Administrator Paul Trivellini, the city official responsible for identifying and recommending to City Council which public properties to sell.
On Tuesday, City Council tabled a resolution to revoke the last remaining deed restriction for one of the buyers, and eliminate all similar deed restrictions on properties sold at auction in the future, until after the election.
A critic of the deal said the city provided the buyers with an unfair advantage.
“There were people who would’ve bid on the properties if those restrictions weren’t there,” said Adam Goldstein, a City Council candidate. “If you wanted to subdivide it as a builder, you can’t do that in a year. It takes too long to get through City Hall and the planning process.”
The deals stem from a Dec. 9, 2003, city auction. Three properties were up for sale. Trivellini’s cousin bought one, another went to a friend, and a third went to the woman who hosts Trivellini’s real estate license.
Only one buyer faced heavy competition during bidding.
All three properties had deed restrictions that required the buyers to: purchase the property within 60 days; obtain a construction permit for a single-family home within a year; and complete construction within five years of settlement.
Instead, the buyers were able to take from nine to 21 months to close their deals. The city collected no taxes during that period, according to tax records and the city tax collector.
None of the three obtained construction permits within a year, city records show.
One buyer, Gerald Covella, subdivided his land and sold one-sixth of it for more than he paid for all 37 acres.
City Council revoked the one-year deed restrictions on the three properties in May 2006.
City Solicitor Rick Tonetta called the failure to enforce the 60-day settlement an oversight. The September 2003 council resolution authorizing the auction included that tenet, but the December 2003 resolution approving the sales did not. Tonetta, who was assistant solicitor at the time, said he wasn’t sure how that happened because he didn’t handle it. He said the resolution may have been written by someone in the Business Administrator’s Office. He said he might not have included the deed restrictions if he’d been solicitor.
Trivellini said he gave no inside information to the buyers. All three buyers said they had no hint prior to the auction that city officials would not enforce the deed restrictions.
“I don’t tell anyone we have land sales,” Trivellini said.
Trivellini initially denied connections to any of the buyers Friday. After being confronted with them, he confirmed the relationships:
* Vineland police Lt. John Fresne is Trivellini’s cousin. Fresne financially backed his daughter’s purchase of an Ascher Road property near his home and now co-owns it with her.
* Realtor Elaine Salas hosts Trivellini’s real estate license in her office. Their sons are close friends.
* Covella is a friend of Trivellini. Covella and city Development Director Alex Curio worked together at The Daily Journal of Vineland in the 1980s and later as regional publisher and freelance writer, respectively, of a magazine now called Golf Styles.
Only the Fresnes encountered tough competition at auction. Fresne’s daughter, Jaclyn, bought the house after a bidding war that drove the price up past the $35,700 minimum bid to $83,000. Covella got his property for $8,300 more than the $146,700 minimum bid. Salas faced no other bidders for her Sherman Avenue property.
“I was surprised,” Salas said. “I expected competition.”
Trivellini and Covella acknowledged the deed restrictions may have deterred other bidders because the properties seemed less valuable with the restrictions.
“If you look at it logically, you’d have to say yes,” Covella said. “It had an impact on my considering it, but I believed I could work within them. So just as it was a negative for me when selling it, it probably was a negative earlier.”
When council members revoked the one-year deed restriction in May, they left in place for all three the mandate that construction finish within five years.
Covella asked council Thursday to drop that remaining restriction because it dissuaded potential buyers. Salas and Ryan Giovanelli, her son and close friend of Trivellini’s son, are negotiating to buy part of Covella’s original 37-acre parcel.
City Councilwoman Sheena Santiago said Thursday that council should drop similar restrictions for every affected property if it’s done for Covella. Tonetta said Tuesday that city officials need the consent of those property owners first.
Santiago has been skeptical about the land deals for weeks. Last month, she called for an investigation into all city land sales and met with the Cumberland County prosecutor and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Jersey.
“You’re friends with Paul Trivellini, yes?” Santiago said to Covella during Thursday’s council meeting.
Trivellini replied that they weren’t close friends. “We’ve never been to each others’ houses,” Trivellini said.
“We go to the same church,” Covella added. He described Trivellini as a “friend” in an interview Monday.
Covella, Fresne and Salas have all seen their properties change in some fashion since purchase.
* Covella split off two 5.7-acre tracts from his Mays Landing Road property and sold one for $164,500. He and his wife had bought the full 37 acres at auction for $155,000, under the name of Unicove LLC. They plan to sell more of the land.
* The Fresnes’ 10-acre tract had been split into two properties on tax maps. They received two separate tax bills for two years.
* Salas and her husband began taking steps to build a new home on their East Sherman Road property.
City Tax Assessor Donald Seifrit said the Fresne split was his mistake and recently reassembled the two tracts back into one parcel on tax maps.
Trivellini, Salas, Covella and John Fresne have said that allegations of wrongdoing are misguided. Trivellini said it was a coincidence that he knew all three buyers.
“It totally is a coincidence,” Salas said. “He didn’t let me know it was for sale. He saw me the day of the auction at City Hall. He asked me what I was doing there. I said I came to bid on the lot on Sherman, and he said, ‘What do you want that for?’”
Trivellini said he hasn’t sold real estate in years and hung his license in Salas’ office because it would’ve expired if he didn’t.
“Paul thinks some day when he retires he might want to sell real estate,” Salas said. “He’s only used it twice since he’s been in my employ. They were both before 2000.”
Covella and Salas blamed the delayed settlement on city officials who did not reach out to them to close the purchases.
Fresne said his daughter simply wanted to build a new home with her now-husband, and she asked her father to finance the deposit. They haven’t yet built the home due to reasons he declined to specify.
“They’re making all these insinuations but not doing any real investigation here,” Fresne said.