Whoopi Goldberg’s company is being sued over a plan to bring a movie studio to West Orange. “The View” host, according to the lawsuit, engaged in a “nefarious scheme” when her company negotiated with township officials to find a home for her production company.
For those familiar with West Orange, bringing such an enterprise to downtown would be a full-circle moment, historically speaking, as Thomas Edison’s lab on Main Street was the site of the nation’s first movie house. A world-class studio would bring back a spirit of cutting-edge innovation to a fairly conservative suburb whose identity is wrapped up with the famous inventor and his past achievements.
The only problem is that the property in question is already owned by a developer. Prism Capital Partners signed a redevelopment agreement with the township nearly 15 years ago. Since then, the firm has had trouble securing funding for the project, making good on only part of the deal by renovating Edison’s former battery factory into lofts. The second phase involves underutilized land behind Thomas Edison National Historical Park. However, all bets are off now that the township terminated that agreement last month, claiming Prism defaulted.
“They have had almost 15 years to complete Phase II of this project and despite approvals, have failed to live up to their commitments,” said West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi, who is also being sued, along with his Chief Financial Officer John Gross.
Prism admits that earlier this year they had begun negotiations with Goldberg’s company, which wanted to buy property from them within the redevelopment zone. The lawsuit alleges that the termination of Prism’s contract was an “underhanded” way for township officials to cut out the middleman and deal directly with Goldberg’s company, while potentially negotiating an even more lucrative contract.
If the allegations are true, this legal battle could provide an important insight into the chess game played by municipalities when it comes to real estate and government appointments. The lawsuit points out the peculiar coincidence that Goldberg’s representative, John Wayman Henry, who assisted her in business talks with Prism, was appointed the chairman of the West Orange Economic Development Commission by Parisi in March. Four months later, Henry was helping Goldberg finagle a contract with the township, without disclosing the conflict of interest, Prism claims.
In a letter to the editor printed in the West Orange Chronicle, Eugene Diaz, a partner at Prism, fumed about township officials who “compete with local developers” and “buy and flip properties to politically favored residents.”
While promising not to “litigate in the press,” Parisi fired back in a press release. “For Prism Green to attack prominent members of the West Orange community and volunteers in our collective effort to improve the township is atrocious and unacceptable,” Parisi said.
Meanwhile, town council members have been noticeably mum about the lawsuit, using an executive session to discuss financing for the acquisition of the land. Still, Council President Cindy Matute-Brown, whom Diaz accused of lying in his published letter, pleaded with constituents to withhold judgment for the time being.
“Please be reminded that a complaint is not a statement of truth but allegations,” Matute-Brown wrote on her Facebook page. “Those promoting a narrative outside of this fact, do so because of their own personal or political agendas.”