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Legal fees in casino revenue suit stir debate

A lawsuit to try to take a share of Seneca Niagara Casino revenue from the City of Niagara Falls has cost Niagara County $53,667 so far, and the appeal that the County Legislature approved Tuesday will cost an estimated $20,000 more.

Some of the legal costs were run up in conversations with county Republican Chairman Henry F. Wojtaszek and State Sen. George D. Maziarz, Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso contended during Tuesday's meeting of the Legislature.

Reading from the bills, Virtuoso said the Buffalo firm of Phillips Lytle charged the county $1,445 for work June 30 that included a conference with Wojtaszek, Maziarz and Legislature Majority Leader Malcolm A. Needler, R-North Tonawanda.

The firm also billed $445 each for phone calls with Wojtaszek on July 1 and 5, the latter on "settlement strategy."

Noting that none of the majority legislators knew that the county was seeking 75 percent of the local share until The Buffalo News reported it, Virtuoso said, "Henry Wojtaszek and George Maziarz were the ones behind this lawsuit to begin with."

"I give you my word, I will go tomorrow and get those charges taken off that bill," said Needler, who acknowledged he had no say in hiring lead attorney Michael B. Powers, a prominent donor to GOP causes.

Asked by telephone after the meeting why he was involved in settlement talks for the county's lawsuit, Wojtaszek said, "I really have no comment. . . . I haven't seen the bills. I have no idea what he's talking about."

Wojtaszek said County Attorney Claude A. Joerg was the one who chose Phillips Lytle.

"Who's running this county, the majority caucus or the Republican chairman?" Virtuoso asked. "This thing stinks, and for you guys to carry this on, you should be ashamed of yourselves. . . . I think you should all resign."

The bills showed that the June 30 meeting included taking affidavits from Maziarz and Needler for use in court. The attorney was Preston L. Zarlock, who charges $245 an hour.

Zarlock also was involved in the July 5 call with Wojtaszek, but the July 1 billing, which also included completing the county's legal filings, was billed at $310 an hour by Powers.

The Legislature voted, 11-7, largely along regional lines, to appropriate $20,000 from the county's contingency fund to pay for the appeal of the county's Sept. 1 defeat in State Supreme Court.

Justice Ralph A. Boniello III ruled that the county has no standing to sue over the distribution formula for casino money, because no such formula is now in force. The county's state legislative delegation has failed to agree on one.

The five legislators from Niagara Falls voted against the appeal, along with Democratic Legislators Harry J. Apolito of Lockport and William M. Davignon of North Tonawanda; all the other members voted for it except absent Legislator Kyle R. Andrews, D-Wilson.

Virtuoso said the appropriation will reduce the county's contingency fund to $37,000 with three months left in the year. He called it "reckless mismanagement."

County Manager Gregory D. Lewis said the county has a surplus of $12 million to $13 million. "The financial health of the county is based more on that than on the contingency fund," he said.

Asked whether he supports the appeal, Lewis said, "I look at that as a policy discussion by the Legislature."

Also, the Legislature voted unanimously to ask the state for 25 percent of its share of the casino revenue. Earlier this year, the Legislature voted to sue for it, but no suit was filed. However, Phillips Lytle billed the county $5,996 for researching the case.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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