City Hall light on lawyers
Newly appointed Corporation Counsel Cavette Chambers began her tenure as the city’s chief lawyer by asking for more money to pay outside firms to represent the city in court.
On Feb. 17, Chambers emailed a formal request for the law department’s $3.2 million budget to be topped up with an extra $300,000 for “outside counsel, court-ordered judgments, transcripts and other legal costs.”
The money was necessary, she wrote, for the department to handle its bills and its caseload “through the remainder of the fiscal year,” which ends June 30.
The budget line Chambers names is for “Legal Services.” In the current fiscal year, it was set at $241,347.
On Wednesday morning the Common Council confirmed Chambers’s promotion to the top job. The 16-year veteran of the law department has been acting corporation counsel since her longtime boss, Tim Ball, left in January.
Ball left to take a better-paying, lower-stress gig with Judge Gerald Whalen, presiding justice of the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division.
Also leaving the department in the last couple months are Jessica Lazarin — third in command behind Ball and Chambers — as well as Maeve Huggins, Anna Falicov and Rashied McDuffie, all assistant corporation counsels.
That’s nearly a third of the department’s lawyers gone.
A City Hall source told Investigative Post the rapid departure of so many attorneys compels Chambers to hire outside help until the city recruits new staff. That may prove difficult, the source said, unless the Brown administration raises salaries.
“The law department needs to be fully staffed, but you also have to pay them competitively,” the source said. “Gotta pay folks what they are worth to keep them.”
The department was already stretched so thin that judges and opposing attorneys have accused the city of devoting insufficient resources to cases, causing them to drag on.
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Consider a federal civil rights case filed in 2018, accusing the Brown administration of discriminatory policing practices. A team of 10 attorneys represents police reform activists in the wide-ranging lawsuit. The four-year-old case record comprises 134 filings and counting, including extensive and sometimes technically complicated discovery requests.
On the city side, all that is handled by one beleaguered assistant corporation counsel: Robert Quinn, who has pleaded repeatedly with the court and opposing counsel for leniency regarding court-imposed deadlines.
In November 2020, Quinn wrote to the judge:
“As one attorney in a small and busy municipal law department with limited resources and manpower, responding to the Plaintiffs’ various discovery requests has been a very large and taxing procedure in the normal course, and was certainly not the only matter which requires our full attention and commitment of resources.”
Indeed, that behemoth of a case is not Quinn’s only brief. Court records indicate Quinn — who has been with the city 12 years and made a little over $100,000 last year, according to public payroll records — is currently representing the city in 33 cases in Erie County Supreme Court alone.
Last week, the city hired the firm Hodgson Russ to help Quinn in the federal case. The firm is a frequent beneficiary of the city’s outside counsel fees: It billed the city $521,000 for legal work over the past three and a half years, according to city records.
The firm has contributed nearly $70,000 to Mayor Byron Brown’s campaigns since Brown took office. The firm’s partners and associates — notably Adam Perry, a long-time Brown ally — have kicked in tens of thousands more.
Chambers’s $300,000 request moved through the Common Council’s Finance Committee on Tuesday and will likely pass the full Council next week.
Jessica Brown, the city’s director of administration and finance, told Finance Committee Chair Rasheed Wyatt that the department’s budget line for outside counsel “is probably going to double” next year.
That is to say, she expects the city will spend as much in the next budget year on outside counsel as it wound up needing this year.
“We’re really going to look at restructuring how we do things” in the law department, Brown said.