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Legal fees top third of fund recovery

Amherst paid $780,000 in legal fees to two Washington, D.C., lawyers for their help in recovering $2 million in federal reimbursements owed to the town from the building of the Plant 16 sewage treatment facility, records show.

Supervisor Satish B. Mohan announced Tuesday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued its final ruling regarding the town's reimbursements, ending a legal saga that dates to 1992.

That's the year Amherst hired lawyers Joseph M. Zorc and Judith L. Chase, whose Washington, D.C., law firm specializes in recovering reimbursements to local governments under the Federal Clean Water Act.

Since their hiring 15 years ago, Zorc and Chase have appeared several times before the Amherst Town Board, usually to explain the EPA's delayed payments and to assure unhappy town officials that their claim for a large federal reimbursement had merits.

On each visit, the lawyers also successfully beat back attempts to reduce their legal fees and expenses, always mentioning the potential reward for the town.

In 2002, Zorc and Chase estimated that Amherst could collect as much as $14 million when the final settlement came. That was $2 million more than the rosiest projections made by former Amherst Supervisor Susan Grelick, who started plugging the federal money into her budget months earlier.

Under their contract with Amherst, Zorc and Chase were paid up to $75,000 in annual legal fees, plus 15 percent of any EPA reimbursement. The firm charged as much as $250 an hour. Town records show the lawyers collected more than $250,000 for their work in 2002, involving the recovery of about $1.6 million claimed by the town. That proved to be the lion's share of Amherst's claims, however.

Mohan announced that the town is expecting the final EPA payment of $358,000 this year, bringing the town's total to slightly more than $2 million, before deducting legal fees.

The 47-page federal ruling also denied the town's claim for another $2 million, saying that Amherst violated federal rules by starting construction of two tank covers without federal approval.

But, Mohan said, Zorc and Chase have again offered their services for an appeal of the denied $2 million claim.

Thus, the Town Board will have to decide "whether or not to pursue the $2 million claim," he said.

e-mail: tdolan@buffnews.com

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