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Gov. Cuomo hired former Pataki aide in battle with New York legislators

ALBANY – Gov. Andrew Cuomo turned to a lawyer who was the top counsel to former Republican Gov. George Pataki for legal advice in what eventually became Cuomo’s abandoned effort to link policy matters to spending initiatives in the recently adopted state budget.

The Manhattan-based Dechert law firm earlier this year was given a $50,000 state contract by the governor’s office for “legal services” that administration officials said was related to what was shaping up as a possible constitutional show-down between Cuomo and lawmakers over the executive’s power in the budget process.

One of the firm’s partners is James M. McGuire, who was Pataki’s chief counsel when former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and others sued Pataki in a landmark legal case limiting the ability of lawmakers to make changes in state budgets that New York governors proposed.

Cuomo this year sought to link policy initiatives he wanted to spending plans the Legislature wanted. In his amendments to his original January budget plan, Cuomo doubled down and made the linkages even more direct.

Lawmakers responded by taking the rare route of refusing to introduce the governor’s amendments, thereby keeping it from ever become a live bill. For a time, there was talk of a fight between Cuomo and lawmakers going to the courts to resolve.

In the end, Cuomo dropped most of the matters and the budget was resolved in classic horse-trading fashion, with officials saying a number of contentious issues in the budget can still be addressed before the 2015 session ends in June.

Given the legal and budget team at Cuomo’s disposal on the state’s payroll, it is unusual for a governor to use taxpayer money to hire a private firm for legal advice – at least before any litigation has commenced.

The contract with the Dechert law firm was revealed in a search of records maintained by the state comptroller’s office. Records show the contract began in mid-February but was not listed on the comptroller’s site as being filed until April 19. The dollar amount of the contract left it outside the contract pre-approval process by Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

The contract has an end date of August 31.

But Richard Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, said the firm’s work for the state has concluded and the final tab was about half of the original $49,900 amount.

“The firm was retained for advice during this just concluded budget process,’’ Azzopardi said.

In December, another Dechert partner, Hector Gonzalez, made the short list of seven candidates Cuomo could pick for a spot on the state’s highest court; an appellate court judge from Buffalo, Eugene M. Fahey, was nominated by Cuomo and confirmed by the Senate.