|James M. Wadsworth, of Hodgson Russ, is Chairman of the Board of the Oishei Foundation.
|Dan Oliverio was for the defense in the Anello trial
|Philanthropist Robert Gioia has come to city hall to offer aid to Dyster's favorite not for profit, the NACC.
Talk about outside consultants!
The Buffalo law firm of Hodgson Russ has received the whopping sum of $828,448 for outside legal services from the City of Niagara Falls since May 19, 2009 with as much as $50,000 in billings earned by the firm yet to be paid.
Dyster's favorite law firm submitted some 303 bills already on a host of legal matters in Federal and State courts and for consulting on various matters.
The ball started rolling with the big time Buffalo law firm in mid 2009 and moved like lightning ever since:
Here are the annual sums paid to the firm:
So far in 2015 the firm has been paid $25,592, but the city is expecting at least another $50,000 in the next billing cycle.
In 68 months, the firm's average billings have been $11,807 per month.
Of course the firm has handled an array of lawsuits, some of them dispatched with finesse, while others seem to linger - as many cases do - and accumulate added legal expenses.
* Man O'Trees v Niagara Falls: A lawsuit with counter claims over alleged improper disclosure of radioactive waste on Lewiston Road by the city's outside engineering consultants, Wendel Engineers. The absence of a city engineer may have played a part in the chaotic results and extra costs for the road reconstruction. Hodgson Russ seems to have won the case.
*One Niagara v Niagara Falls: The owners of the downtown tourist center (which this writer had an interest) sued the city for unlawfully interfering with the owner's right to develop and for over assessment. The case was settled - against Dyster's wishes - who wanted to keep fighting. The settlement came when Councilman Andrew Touma broke free of the thralldom of the spend today and pay tomorrow mayor - by voting to approve the settlement of One Niagara taxes at a figure that the judge approved - and which saw the city pick up $1.5 million last year instead of fighting for the next four years in state supreme court and paying another $100,000 to Hodgson Russ and possibly losing the case altogether.
*Resetarits Construction v Niagara Falls: The lawsuit alleges the city owes the company about $300,000 for cleaning guano (pigeon excrement) on the roof of the old Customs house. The existence of and the safety hazard it presented were not disclosed by the city's outside consulting engineers, Wendel Engineers, to the company, the suit alleges.
The fact that the city was without a city engineer during most of the Dyster administration's reign may have contributed to the fiasco and to swelling costs.
*Skurka v Niagara Falls: The city's last engineer, Jeffry Skurka, fired in the spring of 2013, after disclosing safety violations to OSHA on a Lewiston Rd. worksite, is suing for wrongful termination. Dyster, by not hiring a city engineer in the two years since he fired Skurka, has been in violation of the city charter.
*Niagara Falls Police Officer Mark Feldhousen was accused of ramming his girlfriend into bedroom dressers in her home, causing her to suffer a concussion, a punctured eardrum, and multiple serious bruises.
Hodgson Russ also handled a trio of discrimination cases filed against the city.
*LaMarca v. Niagara Falls Police Dept.: Jennifer M. LaMarca was not hired as a Niagara Falls police officer, she alleged, because she accused a police detective of sexual harassment. Police say she covered up certain incidents that disqualified her.
*Coates v. City of Niagara Falls, and Richardson v Niagara Falls:
Mary Richardson and Daniel Coates sued in Federal Court claiming racial discrimination in connection with losing their jobs at the city detention center. Both lawsuits were tossed out, a clear cut, double victory for Hodgson Russ.
Finally, perhaps the most curious case was Anello v Niagara Falls, a case that clearly should have been settled early, But, once again, Dyster refused and Dyster lost - a loss, by the way, that only the taxpayers will pay for.
Matteo Anello, the brother of former Mayor Vince Anello, sued the city and former city council members, Samuel Fruscione and Chris Robins, and current council member, Robert Anderson Jr., after Anello was barred from speaking, and actually arrested, at a Niagara Falls City Council meeting in 2007.
Tried before Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, the jury found the three city officials violated Anello’s First Amendment rights. The jury awarded $30,000 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages.
While the total award for Anello was $105,000, the total reward for Hodgson Russ was far greater. The firm billed the city up until the end of 2014 - $112,513.67, or $7,500 more than Anello won. But this figure is not nearly final.
The $112,000 in Hodgson Russ billings do not include the hours that Hodgson Russ lawyers Daniel Oliverio and Joe Brown spent at the five day trial (est. 80 hours) or the days spent at the city council offices preparing the witnesses (est. 40 hours) or the time spent researching the knotty issues of case and constitutional law and the time spent preparing for trial (est. 30 hours.)
Those bills will come soon.
And then there is still to come the appeal to reduce the verdict amount (est. 20 hours) and the city's defense of Anello's motion to have the city pay his legal bills (est. 20 hours).
Even if Hodgson Russ were to bill at bare bones, municipal discount rates of say $200 per hour - - the agreed upon figure when the firm first started with the city - at 190 more hours for the Anello case - it adds another $38,000 more - making it close to $150,000 in legal fees for a case that the city lost, and probably could have settled early on for about what the verdict came in at - $105,000 - without all the legal expenses.
Meantime the full scope of ballooning legal costs of the Dyster administration has yet to be calculated. Dyster has certainly hired other Buffalo law firms to handle matters Dyster prefers the city's corporation counsel not to handle.
Still the prestigious Buffalo firm, that traces its roots to lawyer Asa Rice, who founded a Buffalo firm in 1817, and Millard Fillmore in 1834 - of Fillmore, Hall and Haven - Hodgson Russ is not only the mayor's favorite but one of the premier law firms in the country.
Hodgson Russ takes on high profile, high paying cases of public and private businesses, entrepreneurs, Fortune 1000 companies, governmental entities, nonprofit institutions, and individuals in all major areas of U.S. law.
Their website lists the areas of law they practice in: Bankruptcy and Restructuring, Business Transactions, Corporate Compliance & Securities , Canada & International Cross-Border, Education & Municipal, Environment & Energy, Estates & Trusts, False Claims Act & Whistleblower Representation, Health, Intellectual Property & Technology, Labor, Employment, Immigration & Employee Benefits, Litigation, Real Estate & Finance, and Tax matters.
They have clients involved in Aerospace & Defense, Arenas & Sports Facilities, Construction, Financial Services, Gaming, Health Care, Hotel, Hospitality & Lodging, Insurance Coverage, Life Sciences, Manufacturing, Nonprofit, Professional Services, Retail Sector, Technology and Telecommunications.
Hodgson Russ has won landmark cases and represented some of the biggest clients on some of the biggest deals. The headlines read, "Acquisition of More Than 500 Bank Branches Representing $6.5 Billion in Deposits;" "Represented European-Owned Client in Major U.S. Acquisition," "Johnson & Johnson Agrees to Then-Largest False Claims Act Settlement in Risperdal Lawsuits", "Spearheaded Response to the Illegal Appropriation of Plan Assets on Behalf of Multinational Retirement Plan Sponsor", "Tax Counsel in Significant State Residency Case John Gaied v. New York State Tax Appeals Tribunal," "Federal Court Victory Ends Seven-Year Court Battle Over Environmental Contamination Claims."
In addition to their practices, Hodgson Russ lawyers hold seminars, and some publish articles and books, such as Hodgson Russ attorneys Mark Klein and Timothy Noonan's, "New York Tax Guide."
Perhaps as importantly for an upwardly mobile mayor of a small city like Niagara Falls, many of Hodgson Russ' team sit on some of the most prestigious boards in Buffalo.
Business First's annual ranking of the 250 most influential people who live and work in the eight counties of Western New York, "The Power 250," lists Daniel Oliverio (Hodgson Russ LLP) as #56, and John Amershadian (Hodgson Russ LLP) # 93.
Mayor Paul Dyster lags well behind at # 126.
Dyster's association with Hodgson and Russ lawyers brings him out of the small time, gamey atmosphere of Niagara Falls into the robust arena with high stakes players of Buffalo and Albany.
Oliverio is on the board of directors of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership - an organization it would not be unfair to say that includes such members that critics suspect that Dyster takes his marching orders from. Whether that is true of not, it is widely rumored.
Then there is the highly reputed, urbane Mr. James M. Wadsworth, of Hodgson Russ, Chairman of the Board of the Oishei Foundation, which, in our view brings a virtual genuflection from the fawning mayor. Such men as these can bring Dyster into a realm of influence that the poor folks in LaSalle without water, or the senior citizen who cannot lift her tote to the curb, or the schmuck who ran his car into a pothole, or the thousands of residents afraid to go out at night - since, under Dyster, Niagara Falls has become the most dangerous, crime infested city in the state - none of these can bring the mayor into the presence of the imperial and illustrious president of Oishei, the marvelous Robert D. Gioia.
Who can blame a poor, failing mayor with no attention span to devote to the despair that grips the city - for reaching for the stars. And with $18 million a year of casino money, he can do a lot of reaching.
The mayor has astonishingly bamboozled the people of this city - that casino cash is not taxpayer money - it is a budget apart - to be spent as only he decrees it shall be spent.
This mayor has done a lot of star reaching - even if the people of his city must absorb his structural deficit - a loathsome creation of the mayor himself to preserve his unilateral right to blow through casino cash uncontested on concerts and consultants - not for profits that support him, and projects that tickle him and him alone. While the people suffer, he can play the generous benefactor and extract favors as he deems them due for collection.
So he has legal cases. Why have them handled in house. He has plenty of money.
And they are notables - the lawyers of Hodgson Russ: Gary M. Schober, Thomas R. Hyde, Denise O'Donnell, Hugh M. Russ III, Richard E. Heath, Dianne Bennett, Adam W. Perry, John B. Drenning, Robert B. Fleming Jr, Ivan Lee, Michael Risman, Garry M. Graber, Pamela D. Heilman, Robert B. Conklin, Jeffrey Swiatek, and Paul V. Hartigan; these are not only lawyers, or super lawyers, noted in their respective legal fields, but are active in the civic life of the Buffalo community and in powerful political circles.
When Dyster hires Hodgson Russ, he hires the best, the cream of Buffalo, and it brings him a little of the refracted glory of that Buffalo cache - and a credit in the great world of the Gioia's, the Hamister's, the old guard at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. This he could never get if he hired a local Niagara Falls attorney - say a James Roscetti, or Robert Restaino or David Boniello.
It is curious too. Year by year, the Dyster administration has weaned away from using the in-house team of lawyers - his corporation counsel - to handle litigation.
While the workload is less for the in-house team, Dyster has generously increased the pay of the corporation counsel - which during the administration of Mayor Vince Anello was $48,000 - to $99,000.
On top of that he added another attorney. There are now a total of four city attorneys.
This is Dyster: he increased the pay at the top, increased the pay for the other two lawyers and added a fourth - and reduced the workload. He also increased the stipend Deputy Corporation Counsel Thomas O'Donnell receives, as the acting risk management director.
As for clerical staff, Dyster has three women, with two of them working for the lawyers and a third handling the risk management work for O'Donnell.
A total of seven employees in the law department and, with health insurance and vacation benefits etc, the payroll comes in at about $525,000.
On top of this add office supplies, office machines, travel, legal, mileage etc plus, of course, the outside consulting of Buffalo lawyers and you have a pretty expensive law department for a city of 49,500.
The 2015 budget shows roughly $725,000 for the corporation counsel - with the true cost of outside counsel yet to be determined.
Back in 2007, the final year of Mayor Vince Anello's term, Acting Corporation Counsel Damon DeCastro salary was $48,958 and the total legal department’s wages were $290,264. The budget for outside consultants was $100,000.
That's a total of $390,264 or half the cost.
But then again, everything in Dyster's city hall has gone up.
While property tax receipts remained almost identical in 2015 as they were in 2007 - about $28 million, Dyster has somehow increased expenses by more than $12 million - topping $100 million - and much of the spike caused by a literal city hall pay hike gold rush - motivated by record breaking $100,000 salaries for city hall department heads, and with the constant discontent and pushing for pay raises that comes with the spirit of keeping up with the Joneses - a syndrome of watching other's pay jumps and considering the injustice of any delay for your next salary leap. For some favored ones, they are paid all out of proportion for what city hall employees of any financially challenged city of 49,500 earn.
Dyster created the $100,000 city hall employee.
That and millions in consulting fees to outside firms - like Hodgson Russ - and engineering firms of every stripe -for there is no city engineer - have caused expenses to burgeon.
And through all this Dyster blows through casino cash on irrelevant frivolities - useless things that mainly benefit him and his friends - and the real bills - the cost of lawyers and outside engineers - and $100,000 city hall golden boys and girls - is paid for by the taxpayer - the ones Dyster wouldn't want to be seen with - at a fancy Buffalo gathering of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership or with Robert Gioia or the urbane and sophisticated Mr. James M. Wadsworth.
A legal bill of $828,000 has come in and counting from the competent firm of Hodgson Russ, under the direction of a client whose motivations are in doubt.
Does Niagara Falls need the best lawyers money can buy? Then what does it need with a oversized corporation counsel? And why is there no Niagara Falls lawyer suitable for the job of defending Niagara Falls?
No, these case aren't so hard if the client wasn't so dumb. If the client sought justice and not to pursue the tricks of truth, Niagara Falls could take care of itself.