Schenectady County

State says 5 lawyers didn’t earn retirement benefit

Five attorneys from the Albany law firm of Girvin & Ferlazzo were incorrectly reported as employees

Five attorneys from the Albany law firm of Girvin & Ferlazzo were incorrectly reported as employees of the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES, lining up pension benefits they were not entitled to, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said Thursday.

DiNapoli’s office said the attorneys who were improperly awarded credit in the state retirement system are Salvatore Ferlazzo, James Girvin, Kristine Lanchantin, Jeffrey Honeywell and Kathy Ann Wolverton.

DiNapoli’s office removed five years of service credit for Ferlazzo in the retirement system and revoked the other four attorneys’ membership in it.

In addition, an April 16 letter to BOCES Superintendent Geoffrey Davis from Deputy Comptroller Steven Hancox said: “We also determined that the attorneys’ work time was significantly over-reported. Each one of these attorneys was paid and reported to [the state and local Employees’ Retirement System] for having worked 231.4 days — almost full time — for the BOCES 2006-07 fiscal year ended June 30, 2007. However, according to data provided to the BOCES by the attorneys’ law firm, each partner worked only a fraction of the reported time, ranging from 71 days for one partner to four hours for another partner. In total, the five attorneys were paid $234,000 for working the 1,157 days that BOCES reported to ERS as their work time.”

According to a DiNapoli news release, the five lawyers “actually worked a total of 196 days. None of these individuals are retired. They inappropriately earned 5 to 16 years of service credit in the Retirement System. These attorneys did not work fixed hours, submit time sheets or work onsite at BOCES. In addition, BOCES management did not oversee the work they performed.”

According to the comptroller’s office, Ferlazzo was paid $29,000 for working less than a day, Girvin got $55,000 for 27 days’ work, Lanchantin got $55,000 for 71 days, Honeywell $55,000 for 28 days and Wolverton $40,000 for 69 days.

The law firm has been fired by the BOCES district. Davis, the BOCES superintendent, said the lawyers were not working almost full time and should not have been on the public payroll or earning retirement credit. As employees of a law firm, they should have been classified as independent contractors, he acknowledged. They had been earning the pension credit under an arrangement made 20 years ago, he said, and the district expects to get back the payments it made for them to the retirement system.

But Davis said the law firm did do labor relations work for local districts. It appears, he said, that other people at the firm were doing some of the work, even though the payments went to the five lawyers who were inappropriately on the BOCES payroll. He acknowledged that BOCES has no records of this but said the local school districts would not have kept renewing their contracts with the firm if they were dissatisfied with its services.

Four of the lawyers named by DiNapoli could not be reached for comment Thursday, and the fifth, Wolverton, declined to comment.

According to its Web site, “Girvin & Ferlazzo and its attorneys have been representing school districts for over 20 years and is one of the largest and most experienced school law firms in New York state, currently representing over 70 school districts throughout the state. Very few law firms have the ability to bring its clients such a broad base of experience and knowledge in school and education law.”

One of the many local school districts represented by Girvin & Ferlazzo is Guilderland. Its superintendent, John McGuire, said he would be discussing the issue with the law firm and the school board, but he is confident Girvin & Ferlazzo attorneys are not listed as Guilderland employees and are providing appropriate legal services for the money they are paid.

DiNapoli and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo have been conducting parallel investigations of lawyers on school district payrolls. Girvin & Ferlazzo said previously that it was cooperating with Cuomo’s investigation. DiNapoli spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said information about the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES case has been shared with the attorney general’s office.

Cuomo recently expanded his probe beyond school districts to include other local governments.

Cuomo has said his investigation will focus on civil actions to recover public funds but may also pursue criminal prosecutions in egregious cases. His press office could not be reached for comment Thursday.

DiNapoli said in a news release: “Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES took immediate action when it learned its designation of its lawyers as employees was not appropriate. Other participating local governments should review their relationships with professional service providers and take appropriate action immediately to correct any arrangements that do not comply with legal requirements.”

Earlier this month, DiNapoli announced strengthened regulations to provide clarification and guidance for local governments when they determine who is an employee.

DiNapoli said his office would recover any pension benefits paid out to wrongly classified individuals who have already retired, and he would ask the attorney general to pursue civil recovery of those benefits when necessary.

Categories: Schenectady County

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