Share this article

print logo

LAWYER TO THE LEADERS; Attorney Adam Perry and his firm, Hodgson Russ, have profited from Perry's ties to city government. Supporters call it money well-earned.

Adam W. Perry is a man on the move among Buffalo's movers and shakers.

Whether he's rushing from one appointment to another or pedaling his racing bike through the Alps he spends much of his time on his BlackBerry smartphone, taking one call after another from leaders of government and business.

A former rock radio disc jockey who was a little-known local lawyer 10 years ago, Perry is now a man whose name often pops up in major court cases, as well as controversial government issues.

Whose law firm has received almost $4 million in business from the city and its housing authority since 2006? Adam Perry's.

Which Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority commissioner has spearheaded the recent effort to prevent widespread bus route cuts? Adam Perry.

Who headed the commission that was criticized last year for efforts to redraw Erie County's legislative districts? Adam Perry.

Who represents District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III in a federal lawsuit alleging that a prosecutor was fired for political reasons? Adam Perry.

Perry is a partner in Hodgson Russ, one of Buffalo's biggest, oldest and most respected law firms. He's also a good friend of Mayor Byron W. Brown. Since Brown took office in 2006, Perry has skyrocketed in prominence in Buffalo's legal community.

Meanwhile, Hodgson Russ has made a bundle of cash representing city government.

The firm raked in just under $4 million in legal fees for representing the city and the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority since Brown took office on the last day of 2005.

During the same period, Perry and Hodgson Russ donated at least $24,275 to the mayor and to committees tied to the mayor. Perry and the firm also have given thousands of dollars to other candidates in federal, state and local elections.

Perry and Hodgson Russ also get plenty of legal work from other government agencies, including the Erie County Water Authority and the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission.

Perry, 50, said he is proud of his work, and he bristles at the suggestion that campaign donations or political connections have anything to do with his or Hodgson Russ's success.

He said he works around the clock to make sure clients -- whether they're government entities, big businesses or individuals -- are well-served.

"It's the quality of our skills, not the color of money," Perry said. "I work as hard as I can to defend our clients. That's why clients come to us."

>Gets mixed reviews

The Buffalo News interviewed more than 30 people who know Perry, including some who consider him a close friend and role model and others who can't stand him.

Orlando R. Perez speaks with admiration of Perry as a smart, community-minded lawyer who unselfishly gave time, advice and connections to help Perez get his fledgling Buffalo business, Skyview Learning Group, off the ground. Skyview helps welfare recipients enter the work force by training them and helping them find jobs.

"We helped 70 women get off welfare last year, and between them, these women had 210 kids to support. Without Adam, I don't know if we could have done it," Perez said. "He bent over backwards to help me get started, and he's never once asked for anything in return."

"Adam is a community activist. He's not afraid to put himself in the center of a controversial situation to make things better," said Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster.

But Joseph A. Mascia, a commissioner with the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, describes Perry as an arrogant, secretive, highly political lawyer who uses his connections -- mainly with Brown and the Grassroots political group -- to get lucrative work from agencies funded by taxpayers.

"In my dealings with him, he's been condescending and arrogant," Mascia said. "I'm a commissioner, but because I'm not on the mayor's team, [Perry] acts like he doesn't have to answer any of my questions. He's a nice guy as an individual, but as an attorney, that's how he deals with me." "As far as I can see, Adam Perry is just a guy who takes all his orders from the mayor," added Fillmore District Council Member David A. Franczyk, a political foe of the mayor. "He's like an extension of the mayor's office."

Born in Omaha, Neb., Perry moved to Buffalo with his middle-class family at age 6; he grew up in North Buffalo and in Niagara Falls. His father, the late Sandy L. Perry Jr., was a social worker active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and he worked with the poor in Niagara Falls. Perry's mother, Gertrude "Trudy" Anderson, now lives in Morganton, N.C. She is a retired school teacher who spent seven years in Africa as a Peace Corps and Habitat for Humanity volunteer. Perry has a sister, Anne Noel Perry, who is a Buffalo architect.

>From an activist family

Arthur Ray, an accountant long active in civil rights causes in Niagara Falls, said Sandy Perry was a role model, a supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King and "an icon" in the city's minority community.

Perry said his parents taught him the importance of education and helping the less fortunate.

"My mom says I was always meant to be a lawyer," Perry said. "I couldn't let any point go without arguing it."

Perry was educated in Buffalo public schools and graduated from Bennett High School. He went on to graduate from Erie Community College, the University at Buffalo and the highly rated University of Michigan Law School.

But before he became a lawyer at age 30, he worked about 10 years at rock radio stations in Buffalo. He was a disc jockey and engineer at the old WYSL-AM and WPHD-FM. He also drove the WPHD "Cash Van" -- riding around town and giving cash to people who had WPHD bumper stickers on their cars.

During his years in law school, he landed a summer job as a law clerk with Hodgson Russ, a nearly 200-year-old firm that has had two U.S. presidents -- Grover Cleveland and Millard Fillmore -- as partners.

Perry graduated from law school in 1994 and has worked at Hodgson Russ ever since. He specializes in defending employers accused of discrimination and other wrongdoing.

"Adam is an excellent lawyer, and one of the best -- if not the best -- employment lawyers in Western New York," said Daniel C. Oliverio, chairman of Hodgson Russ. "He's also an expert in municipal law. He's a perfect fit for work with the city of Buffalo and other municipalities."

And Perry does a lot of lucrative government work.

He represents Sedita in a suit filed by Mark A. Sacha, a former Sedita aide who says he was fired for trying to indict a political ally of Sedita's. Sedita denies any wrongdoing, and the case is pending. County records show Hodgson Russ bills the county $235 an hour for Perry's work on the case.

Perry represented the Erie County Water Authority in a federal trial, after an employee said he was fired for complaining that fellow workers and supervisors harassed him for dating a black woman.

For years, Perry and the firm have represented the city in discrimination lawsuits filed by white firefighters who say they were illegally passed over for promotions.

Perry also has been active -- usually as a volunteer -- in many civic or charitable efforts, including the Buffalo Urban League, Erie Community College, the Erie County Community Action Organization and the New York Council for Humanities. He was appointed by Brown to head the Buffalo Citizens Planning Council, and he is president of the Mayor's Fund to Advance Buffalo.

While Oliverio said Hodgson Russ is respected statewide -- representing more than 250 government agencies, boards and authorities -- the firm's business with the city of Buffalo has gone through the roof since Brown became mayor.

During former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello's last two years in office, the firm's fees from the city were just under $147,000.

During Brown's first two years, the firm earned about $880,000, quickly becoming the city's favored law firm. City government records show Hodgson Russ has earned $3.16 million in city legal fees since 2006 -- more than was received from the next three highest-paid firms hired by the city combined.

In addition, the city housing authority, controlled by appointees of the mayor, has paid Hodgson Russ $776,437 for legal work during Brown's administration. The federal government picked up the tab for some of those payments. The next four highest-paid firms got a total of $538,108.

>The Brown connection

Since Brown took over as mayor, costs for the city corporation counsel's office have risen by nearly half -- from $2.05 million in the final year of Masiello's administration to the $3.2 million budgeted for this year. Those figures, from city records, include payments to Hodgson Russ and other firms.

Perry said he met Brown in the mid-1990s, about a decade before Brown became mayor. He calls Brown a good friend and said he considers him a strong, compassionate, hardworking mayor. "But we don't hang out together," Perry said. "And I'm not part of his kitchen cabinet."

Perry also said he is a proud supporter of Grassroots, the East Side political organization that helped put Brown in office. But he insists his support of Grassroots and campaign donations to help the mayor have no connection to the legal work the city gives to Hodgson Russ.

When the city hires law firms, Perry said, the hiring is done by the corporation counsel, the city's chief attorney.

Though the corporation counsel is appointed by the mayor, Brown administration officials say Brown has no input into selecting which attorneys are hired by the city. That statement was made to The News by David Rodriguez, who has been acting corporation counsel since 2009. He leaves that job Thursday to become counsel to the housing authority.

Why does Hodgson Russ get so much of the city's business? "Experience, resources and results," Rodriguez said. He said the firm's financial support of the mayor has no influence on his decision-making.

Hodgson Russ successfully represented city police in a false arrest lawsuit filed by David N. Mack, who sought nearly $18 million. On Feb. 6, a state trial jury found no wrongdoing by the arresting officers.

In another Hodgson Russ case that same day, a state judge ordered the city to pay almost $2.77 million to 12 white firefighters, after finding the city illegally passed them over for promotions they had earned.

Through a spokesman, Brown declined to comment on his friendship with Perry. The mayor said the city uses Hodgson Russ because the firm has "specialized expertise" to deal with a variety of legal matters.

Oliverio said many law firms donate money to candidates because they're trying to "ensure that people we feel are good officeholders can continue their work in the community."

"We don't have to buy business there's no pay-to-play," Oliverio said. "People hire us because we're really good at what we do."

Others suggest law firms donate to politicians to curry favor and boost business.

"They may be an excellent law firm, but you don't give that kind of money to a candidate unless you think it's going to benefit you in some way," responded Franczyk, now in his 25th year on the Common Council.

While supporters call him a skilled, hardworking and resourceful lawyer, not everything Perry touches turns to gold when he works for government agencies and public authorities.

>Can't win them all

He lost the 2010 case involving the fired water authority employee. Scott Matusick said he was illegally fired after he complained that workers and supervisors harassed him for dating a black woman. Perry denied those allegations and portrayed Matusick as a lazy worker who sometimes fell asleep on the job. A federal jury found in Matusick's favor, awarding him $324,775. With legal fees and interest, the award rose to $476,050.

Perry is appealing the verdict. He said his legal team was successful in eliminating many of Matusick's claims and preventing an award of "millions of dollars." Perry declined to say how much the firm billed the authority, and the authority said it doesn't know how much was paid because an insurance policy covered the expense.

In 2008, the mayor appointed Perry to head a search committee seeking a human resources commissioner for Buffalo. After what was billed as an intensive nationwide search, the committee recommended Karla L. Thomas, a former chairwoman of Grassroots who had worked in the Erie County Water Authority and as an aide to Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo.

Thomas got the job but came under fire in 2010 after an audit showed that during her tenure, the financially strapped city paid $2 million in health insurance premiums for 170 dead employees.

Thomas, who said she is a scapegoat for the mistakes of others, was fired by Brown last year. Perry, who was not paid for serving on the committee, said: "Like everyone called to public service, my track record is not perfect."

Last year, Perry also volunteered as chairman of a commission that redrew the county's legislative districts.

Critics accused him of "Perry-mandering" districts to please political allies and giving the public little opportunity for input. Perry denies the accusations.

Perry's plan for new districts was never approved by the Legislature, and the county had to turn to a federal judge to draw up the districts. Perry defends his work with the committee, saying the district lines drawn by U.S. Judge William M. Skretny were similar to his proposal.

"I think [Perry] tried his best, but the politics were unbelievably bitter," said Janet Massaro, who observed the proceedings as a representative of the Erie County League of Women Voters. "It was a horrible process. [Perry] could have done a better job, but I don't entirely blame him. Every person there was somewhat to blame."

Perry contends he gave the public plenty of chances for input, adding: "The decision of the federal court vindicated the work we did."

>A tireless worker

Married but legally separated, Perry is a competitive bicyclist who often rides as many as 250 miles a week, said James Costello, director of advocacy and operations for Bert's Bikes. Perry said he has taken business calls from clients while riding through the Alps.

"He's a workaholic and a multitasker who is always working," said lawyer Jeffrey Freedman, a close friend of Perry's. "I've been with him when he's taken one call after another on his BlackBerry from people in city, state and county government He never stops."

Frank B. Mesiah, president of the Buffalo area NAACP, suggested that people who criticize Perry may be jealous of his success.

"He's a bright, intelligent, outgoing, sociable and successful attorney," Mesiah said. "Some people are envious to see him reaching such a position of prominence."

Perry, an African-American, has not done anything that many successful white Buffalo lawyers have not done for decades, said the 83-year-old Mesiah.

"Lawyers get on boards, they make connections, and the next thing you know, they get big clients," Mesiah said. "That's how things work in Buffalo. I've seen it happen since the '60s."

Howard Zemsky, co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Council, and Robert D. Gioia, president of the Oishei Foundation, are big supporters of Perry. "Buffalo can use as many Adam Perrys as it can get," Gioia said.

William Bradberry, president of the Niagara Falls NAACP chapter, is a longtime friend of Perry's family. He said Perry is a passionate advocate for clients and causes, and that passion can rub some people the wrong way.

Bradberry summed his friend up this way: "He's very popular in some circles, and very unpopular in others."

News staff reporters Susan Schulman, Aaron Besecker and Matthew Spina contributed to this report.

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com

***

Big bucks for a Buffalo law firm

Hodgson Russ, with Adam W. Perry as partner, has done far more city business than any other firm since Mayor Byron W. Brown became mayor in 2006.

$146,800 – Legal fees Hodgson Russ got from city Law Department in last two years of Mayor Anthony Masiello's tenure.

$3.16million – Legal fees for Hodgson Russ since Brown took over as mayor in 2006.

$776,437 – Legal fees paid to Hodgson Russ by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.

$24,275 – Donations given by Perry and the firm to the mayor and committees tied to the mayor.

Sources: City, Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and state Board of Elections records