A major Buffalo law firm encountered stiff opposition Monday while bidding for work at the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, where one of its partners serves on the board of commissioners.
Commissioners Henry M. Sloma and Mark D. Croce voted against retaining the Hodgson Russ law firm after questioning the dual roles of Commissioner Adam W. Perry. The board eventually dismissed concerns about public perception of significant amounts of money paid to the downtown firm and awarded the contract, though the resolution initially failed to pass a board committee.
“The core issue is the appearance of [the involvement] of a commissioner and someone who is a partner in a firm,” Sloma said. “I just don’t think it looks good.”
General Counsel David J. State said the authority raised the same concerns to the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics earlier this year and was assured that Perry could ethically serve on the board, although with certain restrictions. They included prohibitions against participating in the firm’s proposal to the NFTA, reviewing or voting on the firm’s proposal, or sharing in any revenues generated by the contract.
While NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel explained that the authority usually spends about $200,000 to $250,000 annually on outside counsel, Hodgson Russ received approximately $460,000 in recent years while representing the authority on one major case.
Sloma noted the appearance of one firm charging the NFTA that much, and that it “totally eclipsed” the sum awarded to any other outside firms. He also noted that while Perry has affirmed that he complies with all of the requirements set forth by state ethics officials, no audit process confirms the commissioner does not share in profits from NFTA services.
“It’s just the way it looks,” Croce said, adding that the law firm of a sitting board member is receiving 70 percent of the NFTA’s outside legal work.
After the authority’s Audit and Governance Committee initially failed to approve the contract without assurances of Perry’s status, the firm’s chief fiscal officer emailed a clarification in time for the afternoon meeting. The firm assured the board that it abides by all stipulations of the state Public Authorities Law and that Perry does not share in any profits generated by NFTA legal work.
Perry, who was asked to leave the NFTA boardroom as the issue was debated, would offer no comment to The Buffalo News on the concerns of Sloma and Croce.
The News profiled Perry in February as “lawyer to the leaders,” reporting that he represented several public entities as a Hodgson Russ attorney. The story said his work resulted in $4 million in business from the city and its housing authority since 2006, while Perry and Hodgson Russ donated at least $24,275 to the mayor and to committees tied to the mayor. Perry and the firm also have given thousands of dollars to other candidates in federal, state and local elections.
Perry and Hodgson Russ also represent the Erie County Water Authority and the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission. He also successfully defended Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III in a federal lawsuit alleging that a prosecutor was fired for political reasons. The suit was dismissed Monday by U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.
In other developments:
• The board accepted staff recommendations to begin planning for major track rehabilitation on Metro Rail’s surface section where a project to return traffic to Main Street begins next year.
Thomas George, director of surface transportation, said the authority should consider replacing the deteriorating track bed near the current Theater Station in 2013 rather than disrupting rail and auto traffic when the work becomes critical a few years down the road.
He estimated the project will cost $3.5 million alone, but $2.5 million in conjunction with the effort to return cars to Main Street. He also estimated the project will cost $4.6 million in 2020 when track bed conditions must be addressed.
George noted, however, that the NFTA has identified no funding for the project at the moment. He suggested that the City of Buffalo also be involved and that top NFTA officials begin making the case, even though he said City Hall has initially declined to participate.
“The logic is compelling to do this work [next year],” Chairman Howard A. Zemsky said. “The board understands the importance of getting this work done now – sooner rather than later. We’ll look for the city to share work on this.”
• George reported that Metro Rail cars soon will carry exterior advertising panels in what is expected to become another revenue source.
• Director of Aviation William R. Vanecek presented a $7,000 check to Mercy Flight President Douglas Baker collected from donations by participants in a recent airport noise symposium held at Niagara Falls International Airport.