City officials have secured a $2.4-million judgment against a
contractor who abandoned a city recreation project after taking off
with nearly $1 million in taxpayer funds.
In a July 29 hearing, arbitrator David B. Moon ordered Joseph
O'Connor to repay the advances he received to build a recreation
facility at the city's sports complex, pay off the debt the city
incurred and make up nearly 2 1/2 years of lost revenue.
It remains unclear whether the city will ever be able to recover
any money from O'Connor, who is in the throes of bankruptcy. In an
e-mail to Assistant City Atty. Scott Field, O'Connor described his
dire financial situation.
"Since I have personally suffered serious financial reversals due
to this, including losing all ownership rights to my home and had my
car repossessed," he wrote in a July 26 e-mail, "I now essentially
have zero assets and have limped along trying to reorganize in a way
where we could be financially responsible. With great difficulty and
much soul searching, I have had to move forward with a Chapter 7
bankruptcy for myself and my wife."
In the same letter, O'Connor described a possible settlement
scenario to repay the taxpayer money, estimating that he could repay
the city within two to three years. Under the proposal, O'Connor
would continue to offer consulting services to various municipalities
looking to build recreation facilities. If the city would act as a
reference, he wrote, O'Connor would be willing to repay the city over
time with a substantial portion of his consulting fees.
The deal would also require the city to settle its lawsuit --
O'Connor said that the pending lawsuit against him makes it difficult
to find new work.
City Atty. Jennifer McGrath said she was skeptical about any type
of settlement offer from O'Connor.
"I'm not saying that we aren't willing to look at getting the
taxpayer's money back," she said. "I'm just not very comfortable that
it is a viable option. It doesn't seem to me like something he can
When city officials hired O'Connor in 2003 to build and operate
batting cages, roller hockey rinks and soccer fields, they had no
idea of his abysmal performance record. O'Connor was the lead
contractor behind failed sports complexes in two Pacific Northwestern
cities and was successfully sued by a Kalamazoo soccer-club owner for
abandoning a similar project. That club's owner, Chris Keegan, even
petitioned an Oregon judge for an arrest warrant for O'Connor when he
failed to show up for court.
The city's lawsuit reveals more details about the events leading
up to the current lawsuit against O'Connor. According to a trial
brief filed by Field, O'Connor left 90% of the work unfinished.
O'Connor moved the construction start date several times,
eventually settling for Oct. 7, 2003 -- about two months after he was
originally set to begin. O'Connor was supposed to have the facilities
completed by March 20, 2004, but by January 2004, he had written city
staff several letters, indicating that he was applying city cash
disbursements to other projects, arguing that he was suffering a
"funding crush" in his attempt to complete the sports complex.
Then on March 3, 2004, he wrote another letter to city personnel,
asking for the release of the final disbursement of $110,000 -- money that was supposed to only be allocated upon the project's completion
-- as well as another $105,000 in contingency money. The city
O'Connor contends that the he could have saved the project if
given the remaining money. The city has since hired a new contractor
to complete a portion of the batting cages.
"I think it's a good first step, but I'm skeptical if we'll get
any of the money back," City Councilman Keith Bohr said of the
lawsuit. "I'll remain hopeful, but I think its now important that we
move forward with a majority of the improvements."
How important is it for the city to recoup money it lost during
construction of the sports complex? Leave your thoughts on our
Readers Hotline at (714) 966-4664, fax us at (714) 966-4667, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your
name and city where you live.
* DAVE BROOKS covers City Hall. He can be reached at (714)
966-4609 or by e-mail at email@example.com.