Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

December 9, 2013

Attorney in CWM expansion fight to appear in front of county legislature

By Justin Sondel justin.sondel@lockportjournal.com
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — An environmental attorney that has been working to fight the expansion of Chemical Waste Management’s bid to expand its landfill will appear in front of the Niagara County Legislature’s Administration Committee Tuesday evening.

The attorney, Gary Abraham of Allegany, has become an object of controversy in recent months. The legislature’s Republican caucus, which holds a majority in the governing body, removed an item from the agenda of an Oct. 15 meeting that would approve Abraham’s retainer, allowing him to continue working on behalf of the county and the town of Lewiston. The legislature has yet to vote on the measure.

The town approved a measure in November that paid the remaining balance of the $50,000 it pays to Abraham every other year, alternating with the county.

Last week, the Niagara USA Chamber issued a pair of memorandums urging the Niagara County Legislature to reconsider its agreement with the lawyer.

The first memorandum to the legislature contained inaccurate information regarding Abrahams employment with the municipalities.

The letter, issued last Tuesday, said Abraham, who has been working for the municipalities for eight years, was hired by the citizens group Residents for Responsible Government.

The unsigned letter also asserts that the county’s guidelines for hiring for professional services in excess of $20,000 requires the county to bid and that the counsel for the CWM expansion — the company is a member of the chamber — should be subject to a bidding process.

Both assertions were erroneous and the chamber issued a statement for “clarification” on Wednesday, retracting those aspects of the letter.

“It has been brought to our attention that some of our statements may not be factually accurate, particularly that the county provides funding for RRG to hire this attorney,” the second letter, also unsigned, said. “Instead, it appears the county hires the attorney directly, though as evidenced by recent press accounts, RRG is heavily engaged with this attorney.”

The letter said that the confusion furthered the chamber’s original point, that the process for hiring professional services is too complicated.

“The chamber did talk with county personnel regarding procurement in general and this hiring in particular and received some contradictory information,” the letter said. “This again highlights the need for better transparency in this and future transactions.”

The chamber maintains that it believes the county should go out to bid for the attorney’s services.

“To date, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on this endeavor,” The letter said. “Even though this is a professional service, good public practice dictates an open, transparent procurement process where the best talent is hired at the best price.”

Kory Schuler, the director of government affairs for the chamber, said he brought the issue to his organization’s board of directors and, after a discussion, decided to issue the statement to the legislature.

Schuler said during a phone interview last week that, despite the inaccuracies in the first letter, the chamber feels that Abraham’s services arrangement with the county sets a bad precedent.

“This is really about process,” he said.

Schuler said that keeping Abraham on as attorney without bidding the services creates a “slippery slope” for future professional services contracts.

Veteran Legislator Clyde Burmaster, R-Ransomville, said the original memorandum was upsetting because he and his colleagues at the legislature have been continuously fighting the expansion of all landfills in the county and the suggestion that the legislature was bending to the influence of a “special interest group” in hiring an attorney was insulting.

“This has nothing to do with RRG,” he said.

And the “clarification” memorandum seemed to be in support of the waste company’s landfill expansion, despite the assertion that the business group “takes no stance” on the expansion application, Burmaster said.

Burmaster, who serves as the vice chairman of the legislature, also pointed out that while the county and town pay Abraham $50,000 a year, the majority of that money goes to a team of experts working for the attorney and the municipalities analyzing data from the site and reviewing claims made by the company in their application for expansion with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

“This should have just been an extension,” Burmaster said of the agreement with Abraham. “What’s the big deal? We’ve been doing this all along.”

Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, said he never received a call from anyone at the chamber and did not know of any other legislators being consulted on the concerns the chamber has expressed in their letters.

Virtuoso said it was “not professional” for the business group to put out information without checking with the legislature for the accuracy of their statements.

“They should have called both sides of the aisle to talk to us first,” Virtuoso said.

County guidelines, which the chamber attached to their original memorandum, say that a request for proposals should be issued for specialized services that cost more than $20,000 a year, but also state that “it is within the purview of the Niagara County Legislature to waive the guidelines on any purchase of professional services when deemed necessary by a majority of the Legislature.”

Virtuoso said that Abraham is one of the most highly regarded environmental attorneys in the state and that it would be impossible for a new attorney to do the research he has done over the years as CWM’s application process draws near completion.

“There’s only a few lawyers in the whole state who do this,” Virtuoso said.

Abraham, who has been working for the county and town to fight the expansion since 2005, said the purpose of the memorandums was to distract from the the company’s effort to expand its landfill.

“This is just a sideshow,” he said. “They’re trying to make it about me.”

Abraham said part of the reason he has been on the case for so many years is that he and his experts have been successful in their challenges to assertions made by the company in its application to the DEC.

“We’ve done many, many things to raise questions about various aspects of the application,” he said.

Abraham hopes to continue working to help the municipalities accomplish their goal in preventing CWM from opening a second chemical waste landfill on its dump site.

“The county has a long-standing policy that they wish to return this land to productive use for the community,” Abraham said.

Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257