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Lawsuit needs time to prepare

Preparation for the recent general election delayed work on a lawsuit against members of the Niagara Power Coalition, an attorney for the group's former executive director said last week.

Faced with a time-consuming deposition phase of the case, coalition members requested more time to repond to legal documents filed in State Supreme Court, said Steven M. Cohen, attorney for Mark S. Zito.

"The defendants wanted to wait until the elections were over before dealing with this issue," Cohen said. "And I was happy to grant extensions until the elections were done."

At least 25 days will be needed to conduct depositions, said Cohen, of Lorenzo & Cohen in Buffalo.

The deadline for defendants to answer court papers has been extended until Thursday.

On Aug. 23, a complaint was filed on behalf of Zito in State Supreme Court in Niagara County seeking $37.5 million in damages, including $30 million for breach of contract.

Zito, a former member of the Niagara Falls Board of Education, helped found the coalition and served as its executive director for several years.

He has been credited with helping to broker a deal between the coalition and the State Power Authority worth $146 million to $1.2 billion over the next 50 years. The agreement was part of the relicensing of the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston.

Zito had an agreement with coalition members to be paid commensurate with his bargaining performance, Cohen said at the time the lawsuit was filed.

Zito's suit also seeks $2.5 million for the value of services he rendered, as well as $5 million for "great emotional stress and anxiety."

The two elected officials on the coalition who faced opposition on Election Day denied the delays in the case were in any way related to their campaigns.

"Frankly, I don't think any kind of litigation between myself and Mr. Zito would hurt me in the election. It probably would have helped me," said Lewiston Supervisor Fred M. Newlin II.

County Legislator William L. Ross also said the election never entered into discussions related to the case. Ross said he keeps the time he spends running for re-election separate from his work as a legislator and a representative on the coalition.

Coalition attorney Stanley W. Widger Jr. of Nixon Peabody said delays were not due to the election. He said coalition members were waiting for information from their insurance companies.

In addition to the group attorney, at least a few of the seven coalition members have hired outside counsel to defend the case.

The coalition consists of the City of Niagara Falls, the towns of Lewiston and Niagara, the school districts of Lewiston-Porter, Niagara-Wheatfield and Niagara Falls, as well as Niagara County. The group formed in the mid-1990s in preparation for collective negotiations with the State Power Authority over the relicensing of the Niagara Power Project.

When asked if any settlement talks have taken place, Cohen said he was not at liberty to discuss that issue.

"I am looking forward to working with the many excellent attorneys who have appeared on behalf of the numerous entities," he said.

e-mail: abesecker@buffnews.com

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