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‘Keep the buggers honest’ lawyer joins building battle

 Gary Gotlieb, one of the country’s more tenacious criminal defence lawyers, has joined the fight to stop the Auckland District Law Society selling its historic inner-city building.

He says selling the building could end up killing the society.

ADLS has signed a $14.9 million sale agreement for the Chancery Chambers building, despite members voting in July not to sell. The president of the society, Joanna Pidgeon, promised at a special general meeting earlier in the year she wouldn't sell the building during her term if members didn’t want the sale.

A new council will be elected in March.

Opponents say Pidgeon went against her promise when she accepted an offer from an undisclosed bidder. They are also frustrated that by signing an offer with this bidder - subject only to member approval - Pidgeon has closed the door to other, potentially higher, offers.

Pidgeon revealed today that since the $14.9 million offer, ADLS has received "two unsolicited and unconditional offers" - of $15.25 million and $15.5 million.

"None of those have been entertained because of the contractual obligations we have to the present purchaser," she said.

ADLS has called for a second vote - on the $14.9 million offer - on Dec. 10. If enough members vote yes, Pidgeon says the sale will go unconditional two days later.

Gotlieb, who during a long career acted for accused people in some high-profile murder, violence and sex-related cases and was well-known for his bright red Alfa Romeo with the plate “ACQUIT”, is a former president of the ADLS.

In a letter to the law society’s own publication, due out on Friday, he calls the building “the jewel in the crown” of the society and says it was bought as a way to give the organisation financial security. “And it did”.

“It seems to me the ADLS is trying to self-destruct via the desperate efforts by the current president and council to sell Chancery Chambers without full and proper consultation,” he said.

All New Zealand’s other district law societies were wound up in 2009 when the New Zealand Law Society took on their regulatory functions. However, ADLS survived because it had a building, Gotlieb said.

“ADLS remains today largely due to Chancery Chambers being our major financial and money-earning asset.

“To sell the building for a large capital sum means we will lose a secure investment property that has performed well for 40 years, which would amount to signing the death knell of ADLS.”

Pidgeon told BusinessDesk the proposed price was a good deal for the society, as it was above a $13.9 million valuation the ADLS had received before the July vote.

She said the society was particularly keen to sell the building because the proposed purchaser had done initial analysis of seismic risk, which suggested Chancery Chambers could be dangerous in an earthquake.

That work indicated the society's 37 percent rating, based on an initial evaluation procedure, may not be accurate. The threshold is 34 percent of the new building standard.

"If a detailed report was carried out and the building was at the earthquake-prone level or below, that would have a detrimental impact on tenants and the ability to re-let,” Pidgeon told members.

“This might necessitate bringing earthquake-strengthening works forward to ensure that the building might be fully let but, while these works were carried out, this would have a significant impact on rental income. ADLS would also have to take on debt and this could have a significant impact on the services we would be able to deliver to members, and could lead to an increase in membership levies.”

But Chris Eggleston, spokesman for a group of members strongly opposed to the fast-track sale, says the law society should commission its own study into the seismic risk and think about doing its own repairs if there is a problem. If a sale is the best option, the building should be marketed to find the best price.

He said the two most recent unsolicited offers add fuel to the 'No' fire.

"What's obvious is the market is a lot higher than the offer already entered into." 

Eggleston, whose offices are in Chancery Chambers, is today sending out a letter to all lawyers in New Zealand, in an effort to persuade ADSL members to vote against the proposal.

He said he has to send the letter to all lawyers because ADSL won’t release names of its members, ostensibly for privacy reasons. He said the society also prevents members attending ADLS Council meetings and is reluctant to give them minutes and agendas.

“We believe the legality of the hastily-arranged postal vote can be challenged, and we would urge all members to strongly vote against the sale,” he said.

In the last financial accounts available, for the year to Sept. 30, 2017, rents from the Chancery Chambers building brought in $655,000 for the society.  

Eggleston said he can’t see the sense in selling the building before members at least have the information they need to make an informed decision. But he’s worried the dice are stacked against opponents.

“ADLS is controlling the communications, they’ve left us only a three-week window at the busiest time of the year [before the vote], and they have put out a press release scaremongering about risks. We are worried lawyers might vote ‘Yes’ or might not vote,” he told BusinessDesk.

Pidgeon said only 20 percent of members voted on the previous proposal, and the vote was tight - only 19 votes between the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps.

She said ADLS is holding an information meeting for eligible members at 5.30pm today.

Gotlieb told BusinessDesk he’s joined the fight because no one has been able to explain to him why it’s a good idea.

“I’ve this motto, ‘Keep the buggers honest’, and that’s how I approach life.”

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