Erie County Attorney's Office Report on Outside Counsel Notes Similar Expenditures, Larger Gain

Modified: November 17, 2016 5:09pm

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The Erie County Attorney’s Office today released an extensive report on the use of outside counsel by the Law Department over the past four years, comparing the period of January 1, 2012- June 30, 2016 (the first 4.5 years of the Poloncarz administration) to the period of 2008-2011 (the single term of the prior administration). Compiled at the request of the Erie County Legislature, the report found significant similarities in the cost and usage of outside counsel by both administrations during these periods but also found that the usage of such counsel for foreclosure matters, which did not occur under the prior administration, resulted in Erie County recovering over $54 million in revenue over the last four years. In addition to the revenues recovered through the reinvigorated foreclosure process, the report also notes the 2015 recovery of $5.3 million in Medicaid funds that had been improperly paid under the prior administration.

“The data in this report clearly indicates that my office has effectively and efficiently managed the use of outside counsel in the service of the residents of Erie County, resulting in significantly increased revenues for the county and also bringing the county into HIPAA compliance. The report also shows that, despite staffing levels in the Law Department that are lower than they have been in decades, my department has taken on more work than previous administrations without overusing outside counsel,” said Erie County Attorney Michael A. Siragusa. “No private law firm could effectively manage the magnitude and complexity of cases and matters that this office handles on a daily basis with similar staffing levels. We have fewer attorneys handling more cases while our department has no paralegals, investigators or nurses as it had in previous administrations. The judicious use of outside counsel makes it possible for my bare-bones department to administer the legal affairs of Erie County.”

The report notes that there were 112 matters handled by outside counsel under the prior administration, with related expenditures over the four-year period of approximately $2.5 million. Under the Poloncarz administration, 98 matters have been handled by outside counsel with expenditures of approximately $2.7 million. Among those matters, outside counsel was used in the negotiation and drafting of a new Buffalo Bills lease and also on bringing the county into HIPAA compliance, as well as on the recovery of over $5 million in Medicaid funds. Most significantly, the report details an expenditure of approximately $3.5 million for outside counsel relating to foreclosure matters under the Poloncarz administration; this investment has resulted in Erie County recovering over $54 million from what had been a long-dormant foreclosure process.

“Our foreclosure efforts have generated almost 18 times the amount of funds that we have invested in them, showing that this is a wise use of outside counsel and a revenue-generator for the county,” said Siragusa. “This is a good example of how the Law Department has turned from one that cost the people of Erie County money to one that is bringing in funds, despite our low staff levels.”

The report was provided to the Legislature today. As recently as 2004, the County Attorney’s office was staffed with as many as 26 attorneys; however, prior administrations reduced that number to the 14 attorneys that the office currently has. Support staff and secretaries to the department have been cut as well, resulting in a significant number of legal matters that need to be sent to outside counsel as attorneys are performing more administrative work than ever before. Currently there are approximately 9,770 open files in the County Attorney’s office that are being handled in-house by these 14 attorneys.

Siragusa added, “This report clearly shows the prodigious amount of legal work being handled by my department and spotlights the obvious need for outside counsel to assist. While I have requested additional attorneys for my department, these requests have been denied by the Legislature in annual budget reviews, meaning that the need for outside counsel remains. Erie County is a New York State municipal corporation with a $1.7 billion budget, and it is irrational to think that all the legal work necessary to effectively run such a corporation could be done by only 14 people.”

In addition, the report lists other responsibilities and new demands on the Law Department, including handling pistol permit revocation hearings, handling all legal work generated by Erie Community College, providing legal counsel to the Buffalo Erie Niagara Land Improvement Corporation, and being involved in Article 7 proceedings. The Department also continues to work with the U.S. Department of Justice in regards to legal matters at the Erie County Correctional Facility and the Holding Center.