Partial Huntington Audit Focuses on Legal Services
The NYS Comptroller’s office recently made public an audit that only evaluated the town’s payroll and legal services. The period covered by the audit was from January 1st, 2011 through May 31st, 2012. According to this partial audit, the office of the Town Attorney employs 13 “in house” attorneys. In addition, during the audit period, the town retained outside legal counsel from an additional 23 attorneys/firms. A total of $1,942,961 million was spent on the outside legal counsel during the audit period mentioned above.
The audit states that the town retained these consultants without using a competitive bidding process known as RFP’s or Request For Proposals. The NYS Comptroller’s audit stated that without using a competitive bid process that the Town is not assuring the taxpayer that these services are being obtained in a economically feasible manner.
The town did have retainer agreements with the 23 outside legal firms. The State Comptroller, in reviewing the town retainer agreements with outside counsel, found that work conducted by “In House” staff Attorney’s and nine outside Attorneys were potentially duplicate in nature. The audit states that $487,951 may have been needlessly spent because the work by outside counsel closely matched the job descriptions of the town attorneys.
Another red flag that the NYS Comptroller pointed out include the fact that three of the attorneys did not itemize their charges on certain invoices. The audit states that two of the three attorneys only provided a general description of work performed but did not list how many hours they spent working in each category. Another attorney billed the town for “professional services rendered” without providing a description of work performed or how many hours were spent on such work.
The town’s response to this portion of the audit states that “while the town is not required to do an RFP it routinely conducts and interviews several firms with specific areas of expertise as dictated by cases size, complexity and area of law involved, among other factors before selecting a firm. An example the town provided is the most recent LIPA tax certiori case against the town.” One of the outside attorneys working on this case is former Huntington Councilman Stuart Besen, of Besen and Trop, LLP.
We reviewed political campaign contributions and they show that Stuart Besen, of Besen and Trop, has on multiple occasions, contributed to town democratic elected officials. Supervisor Frank Petrone received a total of $1,300 in contributions from Besen. Councilman Mark Cuthbertson received a total of $4,723.23 and Councilwoman Susan Berland received $500. In total Besen donated $6,523.23 to all three elected officials. Besen also contributed heavily to the Town of Huntington Democratic Committee. From the period 2006 through 2012, Besen contributed a total of $47,765 to the Huntington Democratic Committee, which includes $43,500 in contributions in 2009 alone, the year he lost his town council seat to Republican Councilman Mark Mayoka.
Other firms that are listed as providing outside legal counsel to the Town which have also contributed to Petrone, Cuthbertson and Berland include:
Thomas Casey: To Petrone $200, To Cuthbertson $2600, To Berland $900
Lewis Johs: To Petrone $13,550, To Cuthbertson $1000
Goldberg Segalla: To Cuthbertson $500
Cullen & Dykman: To Petrone $3900, To Cuthbertson $2500
Confusione and Wabnik: To Berland $1500
Thomas Teresky: To Petrone $500, To Cuthbertson $1000, To Berland $750
This is not the first time the town of Huntington has been questioned on this subject. In 2006, David Winzelberg of the New York Times wrote an article called Politics and Law Form a Profitable Circle.
In the article he points out that while it is not uncommon for municipalities to hire counsel that have contributed to their campaign, it is excessive in the town of Huntington. In the article Winzelberg states “even by the often-cozy standards of Long Island municipal government, the Town of Huntington’s recent spending on legal representation stands out.”
Winzelberg of the New York Times pointed out that, while Huntington, ranked fourth in population among Suffolk’s 10 towns, they had “17 lawyers on its payroll as town attorneys, more than any other town in the county — and in fact, more than two more-populous towns, Babylon and Islip, combined”. According to the current audit results, the number of outside counsel went up from 17 to 23.
In the 2006 article Mark Cuthbertson stated the reason for the excessive use of outside counsel “legal expenses may run higher than some other towns because the town is largely self-insured. Though it saves money on insurance premiums, it must defend lawsuits and pay claims on its own. Some other Island towns, like Islip, which spent less on outside lawyers last year, are also largely self-insured.”
We are also speculating that another reason for the high cost of legal fees is the towns zoning, housing practices and use of eminent domain which some refer to as an abuse of power. An example that incurred costly legal fees is the lawsuit against New York Avenue Properties, a case that has lasted a decade. In this case, the town decided to take over a parcel using eminent domain that New York Avenue Properties purchased 3 months earlier. To date the town has never provided a reason for taking this parcel however it has cost the taxpayers a decade of legal fees and has provided work for many attorneys who have close ties to the town board majority.