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Bills' lease earns law firm $250 an hour; Erie County, in reversal, releases rate for Nixon Peabody to negotiate stadium deal

The rates Erie County is paying the Nixon Peabody law firm to help negotiate a new lease with the Buffalo Bills for the county-owned Ralph Wilson Stadium are no longer secret.

A month after Erie County officials said they would not give out the information because Nixon Peabody had classified it as a "trade secret," county officials released the proposed billing rates for all 13 legal teams that sought the work.

Nixon Peabody, the winning firm, was among four law firms that offered to bill $250 an hour for their partners to work on the deal, the records show. Two firms offered hourly rates for top partners that were slightly lower, and seven offered rates that would have cost Erie County more.

"After discussing the issue of hourly rates with the firms that requested confidentiality in their bids, they have decided to consent to the disclosure of this information to the public," said County Attorney Michael A. Siragusa.

The information was disclosed after The Buffalo News appealed a decision by the county's Law Department to black out the information in public records.

The records show that Nixon Peabody is charging the county $250 an hour for work done by its partners and a managing director, $200 for staff working as "counsel" and $140 for associates who work on the project.

Erie County in January sought proposals from private law firms to serve as outside counsel as County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz negotiates a new lease with the Bills to replace the existing stadium agreement that expires in July 2013.

The proposals ranged from $225 an hour for partners at Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman of Buffalo to $635 an hour for a partner at Thompson Hine of Cleveland, according to the records.

Several law firms noted in their proposals that they were offering discounted rates to Erie County or that they would be willing to negotiate a different pricing structure with the county if selected.

The News had sought the full proposal submitted by Nixon Peabody, as well as information about the amount it was charging the county, under the state's Freedom of Information Law, which requires government entities to disclose records to the public.

The county in its response to The News initially blacked out the hourly rates proposed by Nixon Peabody and said it would not release that information at the request of the firm. Nixon Peabody, in its proposal, had labeled the information a "trade secret" and sought to withhold the information under an exception to the law.

But Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, which advises local governments and the public on open-records law, told The News that the county's initial decision to withhold the information was "unjustifiable."

Nixon Peabody submitted a proposal with biographies for nine attorneys who will be available to work for Erie County. Siragusa said the law firm has three attorneys -- Martha Anderson, Elizabeth Mihalyak Columbo and Christopher L. Melvin -- actively involved.

"The remainder are there on an as-needed basis," Siragusa said.

Siragusa said the rates weren't the primary factor in selecting the firm. He cited Nixon Peabody's experience with providing legal counsel on more than two dozen professional sports facilities.

"This shows the taxpayers that a team was chosen to negotiate the Buffalo Bills stadium lease that not only has an incredible wealth of experience but also is an exceptional value," Siragusa said in a statement released with the disclosed records.

"Nixon Peabody understands that the Bills aren't just an important part of our local economy but that they are a part of our cultural identity, and they will do whatever possible to help us ensure the Bills remain here in Buffalo for years to come."

Poloncarz has told The News he would like to come to an agreement with the Bills on the major terms of a new lease before training camp begins near the end of July.