Peter Torcicollo of Gibbons
Peter Torcicollo of Gibbons (Carmen Natale)

The Christie administration has brought in a private attorney from one of New Jersey’s most prominent law firms to take over the defense of a two-year-old whistleblower suit that accuses it of taking over a county prosecution and having the charges dropped in order to protect political cronies.

Peter Torcicollo of Gibbons substituted into Barlyn v. Dow on Tuesday, replacing Deputy Attorney General Jane Greenfogel and other government lawyers who have been representing the state and other defendants since the case was filed in 2012.

Gibbons, based in Newark, is New Jersey’s fourth-largest law firm, with about 200 lawyers, and one of its most prosperous, with revenue per lawyer of $570,000 and profits per partner of $855,000 for 2013.

It was ranked fourth in the New Jersey Law Journal‘s most recent Top 20 survey, released in April, behind Lowenstein Sandler, McCarter & English and McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter.

Torcicollo, a member of the firm’s executive committee, also heads its construction litigation team and is in charge of its recruiting and hiring.

He and Gibbons managing director Patrick Dunican, Jr. declined comment and referred questions to Lee Moore, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s office.

“The Division of Law has engaged outside counsel to assist with discovery and other litigation tasks,” but its personnel “will both supervise and remain actively engaged in every aspect of the ongoing litigation,” Moore said.

He also said that Gibbons will be providing it services at $325 per hour for partners, $225 per hour for associates and $90 per hour for nonlawyer staff, which he called a “substantial discount from the firm’s typical charges.”

The National Law Journal‘s most recent survey of billing rates at top firms, published in January, showed that Gibbons’ usual partner billing rates ranged from $440 to $865 per hour and averaged $560. For associates, the range was $295 to $475, with an average of $360.

Discounts were also negotiated when Gov. Chris Christie’s office retained Randy Mastro and his firm, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, in January to investigate Bridgegate—the closing of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 that is now the subject of hearings by a state legislative committee and a probe by the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Gibson Dunn agreed to reduce its hourly rate to $350 and not to bill for some of the work. The same survey showed that its partners bill at an average rate of $980, rising as high as $1,800, with a $590 average for associates.

Despite the reduced rate, the initial $1.1 million bill from Gibson Dunn, which released a 360-page report in March, covers only the first three weeks of legal services.

The Attorney General’s office did not respond to questions about why it chose Gibbons for the job and, in particular, Torcicollo, whose specialty is construction litigation.

Over the years, the firm—whose eponymic partner, John Gibbons Jr., a retired chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, won a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed Guantanamo detainees to bring habeas corpus petitions—has been more closely identified with Democrats than Republicans such as Christie, but recent efforts to establish a more bipartisan image might be bearing fruit.

In November 2012, Christie’s close friend, campaign adviser and former law partner, William Palatucci Jr., joined the firm as special counsel.

The firm’s announcement referred to prominent Democrats and Republicans on its roster, including director William Castner Jr., who was chief counsel to former Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, and David Marston, a one-time Republican candidate for Philadelphia mayor.

Between January 2013 and early May 2014, the Attorney General’s office paid the Gibbons firm more than $900,000 for its work on a variety of matters out of a total of more than $29 million paid to all outside counsel.

That sum contrasts with $568,740 during the same period to Wolff & Samson, a firm with close political ties to Christie.

Partner David Samson served as counsel to Christie’s first gubernatorial campaign in 2009 and headed his transition team. In addition, Christie appointed Samson to the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and he later became the chairman. Samson resigned, however, in March amid questions about whether his position with the agency was being exploited to benefit his firm and its clients.

Torcicollo is stepping into a case where former Hunterdon County prosecutor Bennett Barlyn alleges that the Christie administration acted corruptly when it took over and killed indictments against then-Hunterdon Sheriff Deborah Trout and deputies John Falat Jr. and Michael Russo and that he was fired for objecting.

The state and the Attorney General’s office are defendants, as are former Attorney General Paula Dow and former Division of Criminal Justice Director Stephen Taylor, now both state judges.

Barlyn says he and his attorney, Robert Lytle of Lawrenceville’s Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein & Blader, were “taken aback” by the switch because the Attorney General’s office gave no prior indication that it was stepping aside.

They learned of it when Torcicollo showed up at a case management conference on Tuesday with Mercer County Superior Court Judge Darlene Pereksta.

Only six days earlier, the office had filed a motion to quash a subpoena, which is scheduled to be heard June 16.

Contact the reporter at mgallagher@alm.com.