Girvin & Ferlazzo, the Albany law firm tied by state investigators to a pension scandal involving the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES, denied wrongdoing Thursday, even as Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced a $50,000 settlement with one of its former lawyers.
Maureen Harris, who resigned from Girvin & Ferlazzo in 2006 when she became a member of the state Public Service Commission, agreed to pay the state $50,000 to settle Cuomo’s investigation into her. According to a Cuomo news release, she “was appointed in 2005 as a BOCES labor relations specialist, [and] received a $30,000 salary from HFM BOCES and pension credits, despite the fact that she did not provide any labor relations services to the HFM BOCES.” She is forfeiting the credits she received in the state pension system.
According to the Cuomo statement, Girvin lawyers were reported as HFM BOCES employees to the pension system “even though several were doing no work or almost no work for HFM BOCES. The firm generally regarded BOCES payroll placement as a perk of membership in the Girvin firm,” and the arrangement also let the BOCES and its component school districts “improperly obtain state aid.”
At a Capitol news conference, Cuomo said his office is investigating “chronic, widespread corruption and fraud” in the state pension system, involving lawyers and others improperly listed on the payrolls of school districts and other local governments.
Michael Koenig, Harris’ lawyer, and Jim Denn, spokesman for the PSC, said Harris was not available for comment. Koenig said she admitted no wrongdoing, came forward voluntarily to the attorney general when she heard about his investigation, and was involved in the Girvin arrangement with the HFM BOCES for only one year. Denn said she remains in good standing at the PSC, and Koenig said she does not plan to resign.
Girvin & Ferlazzo issued a statement from managing partner Jeffrey Honeywell saying it is cooperating with Cuomo’s investigation “because we have done nothing wrong.” The statement said the law firm “has provided the school districts participating in the shared services agreement in HFM BOCES full and complete [labor] negotiations services for any compensation received by this firm.”
HFM BOCES Superintendent Geoffrey Davis confirmed that the school districts were getting something for the money they paid Girvin & Ferlazzo. In fact, he said, since HFM BOCES canceled its agreement with the firm earlier this year, most of the school districts in Fulton and Montgomery counties have reached new agreements with Girvin & Ferlazzo because it provides good value for the money. And the districts need good legal representation, he said, as they negotiate with well-funded unions such as New York State United Teachers.
Honeywell’s statement said: “The shared services agreement was specifically approved by the [state] Education Department and was subject to periodic program audits. … Since at least 2004 the Attorney General’s Office has been aware of the issues surrounding BOCES and school district lawyers being granted retirement system service credits.” Cuomo spokesman John Milgrim’s only response was, “Our investigation is continuing.”
Honeywell is one of seven Girvin & Ferlazzo attorneys whose pension credits earned through HFM BOCES were revoked this year by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli because they had been improperly listed as state employees rather than independent contractors. The status of several other of the firm’s attorneys in relation to the pension system is unclear, according to Davis and the Attorney General’s Office.
Another attorney, James McCarthy, resigned recently both from Girvin and Ferlazzo and the state Department of Correctional Services after a state inspector general’s investigation found he wasn’t showing up to work at DOCS.
At the news conference, Cuomo said Girvin & Ferlazzo “is the subject of a very active both civil and criminal investigation” by his office.
Sean Casey, of the public relations firm Sawchuck Brown, which is representing Girvin & Ferlazzo, said the law firm does work for about 30 school districts in the Capital Region and 70 statewide.
One of those districts is Cohoes, where the superintendent, Charles Dedrick, said he deals mainly with Honeywell and Kristine Lanchantin, another of the Girvin & Ferlazzo attorneys removed from the pension system by the comptroller. Dedrick said the district is sticking with the law firm, noting that its lawyers have not been accused of a crime.
“There haven’t been indictments; there hasn’t been anybody found guilty,” said Dedrick, who in July will become superintendent of the Capital Region BOCES.
Honeywell could not be reached for comment. His statement said: “In the late 1990s then [state] Comptroller Carl McCall reviewed the situation of an attorney being employed by several municipal entities while enrolled in the [state] Employees Retirement System and found that situation not to violate any rule or regulation.” The attorney referred to in connection with McCall is apparently the well-known Capital Region labor lawyer James Roemer. He has previously declined to comment when contacted by the Gazette.
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