July 16, 2008

Plattsburgh City School Gets New Legal Representation: Switch to Albany Group Surprises Local Law Firm

By Stephen Bartlett, The Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, N.Y.

Jul. 16--PLATTSBURGH -- Plattsburgh City School District has ended its longtime relationship with a local law firm, surprising and disappointing attorneys that have worked with the district for years.

School officials say they've been pleased with the services provided by Stafford, Owens, Curtin & Trombley, and simply switched after receiving proposals from several firms vying to work for the district. School officials went with Girvin & Ferlazzo, a law firm out of Albany that represents several school districts, though most recently has been embroiled in its own legal battles.

"They are no longer involved with that," said Plattsburgh City School Superintendent James "Jake" Short of the troubles Girvin & Ferlazzo have faced with the New York State Attorney General's Office.

Last month, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced his office was accepting a $500,000 settlement from Girvin & Ferlazzo because the firm's partners were improperly listed as school employees in order to receive state pensions.

The firm must discontinue this practice as well as submit billings stemming from work it does as consultants for public employees to Cuomo's office for review for at least three years.

One of the firm's founders, E. Michael Ruberti, now retired, has come under scrutiny for collecting a $50,577.98 pension since 1995.

Cuomo has civil and criminal cases open against Ruberti and M. Cornelia Cahill, another former principal with the firm.

A total of 12 Girvin & Ferlazzo lawyers were wrongfully listed as beneficiaries of public benefits.

Girvin & Ferlazzo said in a statement reported by the Albany Times Union that the settlement wasn't a fine or penalty, just a business decision to eliminate lengthy legal proceedings and enable them to focus on their clients.

The case is part of a larger push by the attorney general and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to eliminate benefits being received by lawyers around the state who have been wrongfully collecting pensions.

"That does not affect us," Short said. "One, because we are not about to set any of our contractors up in a similar fashion, and it was also permissible by the state and comptroller's office at one time.

"The fact (was) that this firm was involved with that, but now I can see they no longer are, and I also know to a certain extent it was permissible. Girvin & Ferlazzo has an impressive list of schools they work with."

Short stressed that the School District has been pleased with the services it has received up until switching firms.

"I can easily say the Stafford law firm is very upstanding and a credible organization, and I really liked working with them."

Dennis Curtin, of Stafford, Owens, Curtin & Trombley, began representing Plattsburgh City School in the early 1990s. He worked with several superintendents, school boards and administrators and enjoyed the relationships he formed.

"It is a bit disappointing that the School District changed and went out of town to get legal counsel," he said. "Our understanding is there was never a problem with the quality and turnaround time of our work. So we were a little bit surprised."

Jacqueline Kelleher, who along with Curtin represents 10 to 12 school districts in Clinton and Essex counties, pointed to the firm's recent success in helping the district secure the purchase of the property adjacent to Momot School.

And, she said, "we brought their teacher contract negotiations in at 3.5 percent, which is lower than any other teacher settlements I am aware of in the region."

Short explained that every three years or so the district reviews one contract or another and school officials make a request for proposals for, in this case, legal services.

"After reviewing all the different price structures and what the different firms can offer and do, we ultimately decided to go with Girvin & Ferlazzo."

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