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Feds fault BMHA on legal services, but OK police pact

The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority paid $211,216 for outside legal services that should have been performed by the authority’s in-house lawyer, according to a federal audit that was undertaken a year ago in response to an anonymous hotline complaint.

The audit renewed tenant claims that the authority wastes money on outside law firms, money that could be better spent providing services to residents.

However, in response to that same anonymous complaint, the audit did not find the Buffalo Police Department in breach of a $650,000 annual contract with the BMHA, though the audit did fault how the authority allocated police protection costs across its 19 public housing developments. The audit by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Inspector General concluded that it was not done in an equitable manner.

The police contract also has been a contentious issue as tenant leaders complain about crime in and around BMHA properties and call for the authority to hire its own private police force, as it did until contracting with the city in 2010 to cut costs.

Tenant complaints about the contract and police protection will be on the agenda at Tuesday’s meeting of the Common Council Police Oversight Committee. But the HUD auditors did not find fault overall with the agreement between the city and the BMHA.

“The Authority had documentation to show that the police services provided were above the baseline level of service that was required to be furnished under the cooperation agreement,” the audit said. “However, Authority officials did not allocate the costs to the individual (public housing developments) based on the level of protective services provided and did not obtain monthly police activity reports in a timely manner.”

The report was more critical of the procurement of legal services, which tenant leaders also complained the authority wastes money on.

The audit noted that BMHA officials paid $290,460 in outside legal fees for contracts without any supporting documentation to show that they were procured in accordance with federal rules. Of that amount, $79,244 related to necessary legal services that, nonetheless, lacked supporting documentation to show that they were competitively bid, while $211,216 related to general authority legal services that were not adequately justified under federal rules.

The audit noted that the $79,244 might have to be repaid if the BMHA can’t come up with the required bid documentation.

BMHA Executive Director Dawn E. Sanders-Garrett did not return a telephone call Monday seeking comment on the Inspector General’s audit. However, the 23-page document does include the authority’s official responses to the allegations and to the inspector general’s recommendations. In it, authority officials took exception to the charge that the $211,216 it procured in outside legal services between October 2011 and July 2014 was unreasonable. BMHA officials argued that outside legal services were necessary because the authority was in the process of breaking in a new general counsel, David Rodriguez, who was hired in March 2012.

During the period covered by the audit, BMHA paid more than $1.4 million to seven law firms. Three provided general legal services similar to what the authority’s general counsel would do, while four provided very specific legal services that were not in the purview of general counsel.

BMHA tenant-elected Commissioner Joseph Mascia, who has long been at odds with authority officials, viewed the inspector general’s report as vindication. Mascia said his persistence resulted in Housing Authority officials unsuccessfully seeking to oust him from the Board of Commissioners.

Mascia also wasn’t buying the BMHA’s argument that it needed so many outside law firms because its general counsel might have been unfamiliar with federal procurement rules.

“Well, why didn’t we hire an attorney that was already skilled in that field?” Mascia asked. “You’re telling me that we hired a guy at top dollar and then we had to have an outside legal counsel until he learned how to do it? Why did we hire him?”