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Another Voice: Sheriff's tenure has been expensive

By Jean Dickson

While the most grievous effects of Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s administration are the loss of lives in the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility, there have also been tremendous financial costs to the taxpayers of Erie County.

County Attorney Michael A. Siragusa’s reports show that no county official has used more public funds to protect his misdeeds than the sheriff has during the years 2008 to 2016 (Howard has been sheriff since 2005). Often this involved “outside counsel” – private lawyers – hired by the county.

Besides suicides and other deaths, many cases involve failure to protect inmates’ health and safety while they await arraignment. Some of these cases have been reported in The Buffalo News. In one case, Quandrell Ivey was denied adequate medical care while locked in the Holding Center in 2009. He sued in 2010, and in 2014 he got a settlement of $600,000; the county paid outside counsel $58,131. Total expense for the county: $658,131.

In another case, Mark Curcie suffered a punctured lung and loss of his spleen in 2006 when deputies used excessive force to subdue him. In 2009, his case was settled for $250,000.

Legal fees for defense of the Sheriff’s Office cost the county at least $595,000 in fees paid to outside counsel. This includes more than $89,000 spent so far on the Richard Metcalf case.

From 2008 to 2011, $291,410 was spent to defend the sheriff’s noncompliance with the U.S. Department of Justice and New York State Commission of Correction’s efforts to clean up the jails and save the lives and health of inmates.

An effort to hide these expenditures cost $19,117 for outside counsel plus the legal fees awarded to the New York Civil Liberties Union, another $9,123. Later, in 2014 and 2015, the county paid $22,493 to stop the NYCLU from viewing documents on the sheriff’s warrantless surveillance. All this cover-up money adds up to $342,143.

Most settlements are confidential; however, a few reported settlements paid to seven victims or their families amount to approximately $1.2 million.

In 2011, then County Executive Chris Collins released a list of 10 legal settlements for incidents that occurred from 2005 to 2008. The total was $461,000; the average payout was $46,100. At that rate, we should expect about 30 more settlements for deaths and injuries for the years up to 2017, resulting in at least $1.38 million. The county might have to spend much more on the India Cummings and Metcalf cases.

So, adding up the expenditures for defense of Howard, the expense to the county amounts to at least $2.5 million. Future costs may skyrocket, adding at least $1.4 million, unless the training and culture of the Sheriff’s Department change radically.
Erie County cannot afford another Howard term.

Jean Dickson is a retired librarian with considerable research skills and a long-term interest in criminal justice.

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