When Mayor Byron W. Brown found himself facing allegations of a pay-to-play scheme at City Hall, he turned to one of Buffalo’s most respected defense lawyers.
Six years later, the high-profile lawsuit against the mayor and city drags on, but Terrence M. Connors is off the case, replaced by two other well-known attorneys.
Meanwhile, the taxpayer-funded bill for Brown’s legal defense mounts.
At last count, the city had paid Connors’ $645,341, most of it over the past three years.
The payments, disclosed as part of a freedom of information request, indicate the city’s reliance on outside private counsel ebbed and flowed during the course of the case, culminating in $191,000 in payments last year.
“Matters that present potential conflicts of interest are routinely sent to outside counsel as this one was six years ago,” Michael J. DeGeorge, a Brown spokesman, said in a statement. “This is not unusual in the context of complex corporate litigation. “
It was in 2010 that Connors, one of Buffalo’s most prominent defense attorneys, signed on to represent Brown, then-Masten Council Member Demone Smith and the city in a federal lawsuit brought by NRP Properties of Cleveland.
The developer claims Brown killed one of its projects – a $12 million housing development in Masten and Cold Springs – when the company refused to hire one of his political allies, the Rev. Richard A. Stenhouse.
Brown denies the allegation and claims the project was stopped because of public policy concerns. With his blessing, the city refused to transfer land set aside for the development or provide funding that NRP claims the city previously approved.
“I think it’s dead,” the mayor said in May 2010.
A year later, NRP filed suit in federal court.
In Connors, Brown hired an attorney with a history of representing prominent public officials, including several sitting mayors in Buffalo and elsewhere.
“We’ve worked for four different mayors,” Connors said last week. “Griffin, Masiello, Brown and Mayor O’Laughlin in Niagara Falls.”
The payments to Connors’ firm started in 2010, well before the suit was filed but after NRP went public with its pay-to-play claims, and continued until this month. They ranged from a low of $7,550 a year to a high of $191,077 a year.
Connors would not talk about the racketeering lawsuit, but indicated some of the city’s payments cover work his firm did on two matters unrelated to NRP. He also noted that his firm charges municipalities such as Buffalo a discounted hourly rate.
He acknowledged that the large majority of payments can be attributed to the NRP case and, like Brown, said the suit is not the type of case the city’s Law Department normally handles.
“Over the years, we’ve been hired to handle legal matters that are not commonly experienced by their excellent in-house staff,” Connors said.
Earlier this year, Brown shook up his legal defense team, replacing Connors with two lawyers – former U.S. Attorney Michael A. Battle and Michael A. Brady, a well-known Buffalo lawyer and former prosecutor. Battle, who is also a former judge, is now a partner in the Washington, D.C., firm of Barnes & Thornburg.
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, who left City Hall to join a private developer, is believed to be cooperating with the federal and state probes into political operative G. Steven Pigeon, his former mentor, according to several sources. Pigeon was indicted earlier this year on nine felony counts, most involving bribery.
Often credited with orchestrating Brown’s election as mayor, Casey is also a defendant in the “pay-to-play” suit filed by NRP and, until now, Connors represented both Casey and Brown.
In the past, Connors has pointed to the possibility of a conflict when asked about his departure from the defense team.
NRP took a far different view of the shake-up, suggesting it was an indication of Brown’s unhappiness 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 was the force behind the effort to kill NRP’s project in Buffalo.
The shake-up in the city’s defense team also 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 any quid pro quo demand involving Stenhouse.
“I don’t recall that exact conversation,” he said in July of last year.
NRP claims Stenhouse wanted an $80,000 contract and numerous other financial benefits it found “suspect and questionable.”
Stenhouse, an 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.
“I look forward to being able to testify to the truth of the case,” Stenhouse said at the time, “so that the city of Buffalo, especially the East Side, will know that Mayor Brown and Councilman Smith should be commended.”
From the start of its legal action, NRP has argued that the East Side housing project was not the first in which Brown, Smith and Stenhouse conspired to direct work to Stenhouse.