With the state attorney general vowing to look into cases decided by former Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek, Amherst lawmakers Monday decided to urge that the investigation also scrutinize the $3.4 million judgment in favor of Acquest Wehrle LLC against the town in 2013.
After the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court ruled in December against awarding the town a new trial, the Town of Amherst in April was required to pay $4 million in damages and attorney’s fees to the developer, who contended that his property rights were violated when town officials failed to make him aware that there was a 50-year moratorium on developing land on Wehrle Drive that he had purchased for development.
Michalek, who presided over the original trial in June 2013, admitted in court two weeks ago that he solicited favors from political operative G. Steven Pigeon, and was forced to resign the $193,000-a-year post he had held for nearly two decades. Michalek’s admission also called into question some of his rulings from the bench, prompting an investigation by the state Office of Court Administration.
Councilwoman Deborah Bruch Bucki on Monday introduced the resolution, calling on the state to look into Michalek’s ruling on Acquest.
“Having attended the trial in 2013, I felt I just was not comfortable with what I saw,” Bucki said during Monday’s Town Board meeting. “Our counsel tried to get evidence submitted, and those requests were denied. When we objected to things that were said in court, most of the time … our judgments were overruled.”
Bucki also said she was alarmed that Michalek admitted in court that his association with Pigeon led him to appoint a young lawyer as a receiver in a case handled by the former judge, even though the lawyer, Edward A. Betz, had not yet been approved the state courts as a qualified receiver. The town was represented in the Acquest case by the law firm DeMarie & Schoenborn, for which Betz went to work in 2014 and eventually became a partner.
Law firm partner Sean D. Schoenborn emphasized Monday that Betz was not associated with DeMarie & Schoenborn until 2014, after the judgment was entered by State Supreme Court in the 2013 case.
“Ed Betz joined the firm on an of counsel basis in 2014 and was a partner of the firm from January 2015 until December of 2015, when he decided to resign in order to seek an in-house legal position elsewhere,” Schoenborn said in an email to The Buffalo News.
“We ended our professional association with him on amicable terms and he remains a friend. Because it would be a matter of public record, I would add that his current employer is not a client of this firm.”
Bucki, however, insisted that Betz’s connection to Michalek was pertinent. “I think it’s still important to look at the connection,” she said, citing the lawyer’s previous employment with the Erie County Water Authority, a patronage haven. She also questioned how Betz ended up at DeMarie & Schoenborn when he did. “Where there’s smoke, is there fire?” she said. “I’m not casting aspersions on anybody.”
Amherst Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein, in response, said that it was inappropriate to include any mentions of Betz in the town’s resolutions because he did not join the law firm until well after Michalek handed down his judgment against the town.
“I, personally, don’t think Betz has anything to do with this, but I do think that Steve Pigeon had a (part) in Amherst politics for a while. … I think that’s the connection, not Betz,” Weinstein said.
“I’m very supportive of what Councilwoman Bucki is attempting to do. … The town attorney is going to follow up on this.”
After Bucki agreed to have those references to Betz stricken from the resolution, it was unanimously adopted by the board.
Councilman Steven D. Sanders said a state investigation of Michalek’s ruling should not end with the Acquest case. “Why are we limiting this just to the Acquest case?” Sanders said. “I mean, Michalek certainly ruled on other cases involving the town.”