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Mayor Brown shakes up legal defense team in ‘pay-to-play’ suit

In the ongoing court battle over “pay-to-play” allegations by a Cleveland developer, Mayor Byron W. Brown is shaking up his legal defense team, replacing one big name with another.

Brown, in a new federal court filing, announced he is replacing prominent Buffalo defense attorney Terrence M. Connors with former U.S. Attorney Michael A. Battle.

The change in lead counsel came just weeks after several sources reported that former Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey met at least twice with FBI agents investigating public corruption.

Casey, the man often credited with orchestrating Brown’s election as mayor, is also a defendant in the “pay-to-play” civil suit filed by NRP Properties of Cleveland and, until now, Connors represented both Casey and Brown.

Connors would not comment on the reports of Casey’s cooperation with the FBI but indicated the possibility of a conflict led to his departure from the defense team.

“I think it makes sense, as a precautionary measure, to avoid even the possibility of a conflict down the road,” he said Thursday.

NRP, which filed its suit more than five years ago, took a far different view of the shake-up in the city’s legal team. The developer sees it as an indication of Brown’s dissatisfaction with how the case is unfolding.

The firm’s lawyers claim the evidence and testimony that has come out so far bolstered their claim that Brown killed one of NRP’s projects – a $12 million new housing development in Masten and Cold Springs – when the company refused to hire one of his political allies, the Rev. Richard A. Stenhouse.

“I don’t think it’s a reflection of the lawyers, but a reflection of how unhappy the defendants are over the way the case is going,” said Thomas S. Lane, a lawyer for NRP.

City officials declined to comment on this week’s developments in the case.

In Battle, the mayor has hired a former prosecutor and former judge with a reputation that extends far beyond Buffalo.

In addition to serving as U.S. Attorney here, he also served as director of the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, where he oversaw all of the nation’s federal prosecutors.

Battle, now a partner in the Washington, D.C., firm of Barnes & Thornburg, will work with Michael A. Brady, a well-known Buffalo lawyer and former prosecutor. Battle and Brady could not be reached to comment Thursday.

The shake-up in the city’s defense team came as the two sides in the civil case exchanged “discovery” material and more than a year after Brown testified under oath about the “pay-to-play” allegations for the first time.

During a deposition at a downtown law office, he told lawyers he doesn’t remember.

“I don’t recall that exact conversation,” he said in July of last year.

NRP’s complaint is rooted in a failed housing project that was supposed to result in 50 rental homes in the Masten and Cold Spring neighborhoods.

In early 2009, the project stalled when Brown refused to transfer land the city had set aside for the development. The mayor also declined to give NRP funding that previously had been approved by the city.

At the time, Brown said he was uncomfortable with the project, in part because of a requirement that the rental housing not be sold for 15 to 30 years.

When the project stalled, NRP filed suit in federal court.

Stenhouse, a well-known and influential minister with his own record of development on the East Side, was a defendant in the suit until he settled with NRP for a reported $200,000 in early 2012.

Despite settling, Stenhouse has said, through his lawyers, that he never demanded or in any way insisted on a contract with NRP.

Casey, who left City Hall to join a private developer, is a defendant in the NRP suit and, according to three sources, is believed to be cooperating with the federal and state probes into political operative G. Steven Pigeon, his former mentor.

Pigeon was recently indicted on nine felony counts, most involving bribery.

From Day One, Casey, who has not been charged with any crimes, has said he’s not a target of the investigation, but two of the sources familiar with the probe said they believe he is one now.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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