Erie County Attorney questioned about $25,000 for outside counsel in Lorigo query

Jun 16, 2016

Members of the Erie County Legislature quizzed County Attorney Michael Siragusa Thursday afternoon about public dollars spent on outside legal advice regarding a part-time job pursued by one legislator. The County Attorney insists there was no prodding by the County Executive's office to seek a legal opinion, but Republicans on the Legislature aren't buying it.

Back in January, Siragusa sought outside legal opinion from two firms, first Kavinoky Cook and later Hodgson Russ, as to whether Legislator Joseph Lorigo had vacated his seat upon accepting an opportunity to serve as West Seneca Town Prosecutor on the side.

Erie County Attorney Michael Siragusa, seated at front right, answers a question asked by Erie County Legislator Edward Rath III during Thursday's hearing into a $25,000 expense for outside legal counsel in a query regarding Legislator Joseph Lorigo's brief stint as the West Seneca Town Prosecutor earlier this year.
Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Both firms returned opinions of yes. Lorigo, who ultimately gave up the West Seneca position, stated he had received an opinion in December 2015 that he would be able to hold both positions. What upset him during Thursday's hearing was the belief County Executive Mark Poloncarz knew about the County Attorney's activity while Lorigo did not.

Siragusa faced questions during an hour-plus hearing whether he was prodded by Poloncarz to seek the legal opinion about Lorigo. He insisted both in the hearing and later in the hallway that the decision to pursue outside counsel was of his own initiative, and the choices of firms - the first of which is a former employer of Poloncarz - were entirely his.

"Any allegations that my office was an unwitting or witting participant in a 'witch hunt' orchestrated by the County Executive are simply untrue," Siragusa testified. "These allegations are clearly baseless as Legislator Lorigo still holds his seat."

The Conservative lawmaker, as well as several Republican members of the Legislature, expressed their doubts in Siragusa's claims after the hearing concluded. Lorigo is convinced Siragusa's query was done at the behest of Poloncarz.

"Without a doubt," he said. "It is abundantly clear that the County Executive is abusing his authority with the County Attorney's office, and the County Attorney is complicit in that abuse."

Present at the hearing was Daniel Spitzer, an attorney from Hodgson Russ who wrote one of the January opinions suggesting Lorigo vacated the Legislature seat upon accepting the West Seneca Town Prosecutor's role. He insists the County Attorney was acting on his own behalf.

"I got a call from Mike Siragusa and no one else from the County. Specifically I was asked to look at the issue of compatibility of offices between the town prosecutor and county legislature, and if they were incompatible, what were the possible ramifications of such incompatibility.

"What I found was a series of cases that held where an individual has control over the budget of someone that is responsible for appointing them to the job, those positions are incompatible."

Lorigo received an opinion in late January from law firm Phillips Lytle LLP that agreed with earlier advice that his dual roles were compatible. A copy of that opinion was among eight documents attached and distributed to reporters by Poloncarz's press secretary, Peter Anderson. The documents provided also include the original legal opinions, a follow-up by Kavinoky Cook disputing the Phillips Lytle opinion and a letter from Acting District Attorney Michael Flaherty that suggests his office never designated Lorigo as the West Seneca Town Prosecutor. 

Republican legislators admitted frustration after the hearing, expressing a lack of satisfaction in the answers they got, and the ones they say they didn't get.

"There was a ton of discrepancies and when we tried to get to the bottom of them, the County Attorney just kept talking in circles," Lorigo said. "The fact remains is that he spoke to the County Executive, the County Executive in my opinion is the one who directed him to look into the situation, and that's fine. What isn't fine is that I was never told, for over two weeks, that anyone was looking into this."

Legislature Chairman John Mills was also among those doubting Siragusa's side of the story. He readily admitted after the hearing that his trust in the County Attorney is now in question.

"You've got to remember the County Attorney is hired by the County executive," Mills said. "That to me is a conflict of interest. Our charter revision committee brought that up, saying we should make the County Attorney independent."

Siragusa stated during the hearing that his department's personnel and resources have been scaled back since the Collins administration and that his decision to seek outside help to answer the Lorigo question was done to avert any conflicts of interest on his part. He did hear some vocal support from Democratic Legislator Peter Savage, who like Republican lawmakers called for more information to be made available but also had good words for Siragusa.

"I appreciate that the County Attorney has said that there are judgment calls and, (with) the benefit of hindsight, things could have been done a bit differently. We all have that on a daily basis," Savage said. "I will say that in my thirteenth year as an attorney, I've known Mr. Siragusa for much of, if not all of that time. I've known him to be an honest attorney, a very professional attorney, someone who's got a very strong reputation in the community. I think that should be said for the record as well."