Attorney General Cuomo Announces That Two Capital Region Lawyers Will Pay More Than $300,000 To Settle Case Arising From Abuse Of Public Benefits Systems

ALBANY, N.Y. (October 6, 2008) – Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo today announced settlement agreements with two Capital Region lawyers (who are related by marriage) requiring them to pay more than $300,000 to settle allegations that they were improperly listed as employees at an upstate BOCES for which neither actually worked.

Between 1998 and 2006, M. Cornelia Cahill was paid approximately $270,000 as a “Labor Relations Specialist” for the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services (HFM BOCES) even though at no time during that period did she perform labor relations services for the BOCES. Under the settlement agreement with Attorney General Cuomo, Cahill, a former partner with the Girvin & Ferlazzo, P.C., law firm in Albany, will pay the state $270,000, rescind all pension credits received during her eight years listed as an HFM BOCES “employee” and forfeit any claim to contributions she made to the pension system.

Cahill’s brother-in-law, John R. Sise, formerly “of counsel” at the Girvin firm, sought in 2001 to be placed on the HFM BOCES payroll so that he would appear eligible to receive retirement benefits to which he was not entitled from his private employer, Siena College in Loudonville.  Ms. Cahill is married to John Sise’s brother, Richard E. Sise.  Partners at the Girvin firm, including Cahill, assisted John Sise in arranging for the BOCES to list him as an “employee” and to generate a document containing false information which was used by John Sise to improperly obtain benefits from Siena.  John Sise will pay the state $35,000 under today’s settlement, of which nearly $19,000 will be returned to Siena as restitution.

With today’s settlements, actions taken through the Attorney General’s pension investigations have recovered more than $1.2 million in public funds to date.

“For these two lawyers, the public school system and its benefits of employment were perverted for their own benefit,” said Attorney General Cuomo. “Both, along with other members of the Girvin firm, engaged in a scheme to convert the benefits of public employment into personal benefits for private lawyers.  They did so at significant cost to the taxpayers both in financial terms and in terms of erosion of the public trust.  My office will continue working to put an end to systemic fraud, waste and abuse in the public pension systems.”

When Cahill and John Sise initiated their improper dealings, Cahill was a partner with the Girvin firm and John Sise was “of counsel” at the firm. At the time, and until a separate settlement agreement was recently reached between the firm and Attorney General Cuomo, the firm’s leadership considered their ability to place their lawyers on the HFM BOCES payroll as a perk of partnership, regardless of whether those lawyers actually worked for the BOCES. The firm settled allegations against it in June for $500,000.

In 1998, as an intended benefit of her partnership with the Girvin firm, Cahill requested to be placed on the HFM BOCES payroll as a “Labor Relations Specialist.” While she performed minimal non-labor related services for some school districts over the next several years, she never worked as an “employee” for or at the BOCES, nor did she perform any labor relations work. Her BOCES “employment” ended in June, 2006, when she left the Girvin firm.

John Sise, meanwhile, was of counsel at Girvin from 1999 until 2001, at which time he was offered a position as Director of Planned Giving at Siena College. However, Siena required new employees to work for them for two continuous years before being eligible for employer contributions (10 percent of salary) to Siena’s tax-deferred retirement plan for employees. That two-year waiting period would be waived for employees who could show prior membership with a similar type of retirement plan.

In order to bypass the two-year waiting period, John Sise asked Cahill and Girvin firm partners James Girvin and Kristine Lanchantin whether he could be listed as an “employee” on the HFM BOCES payroll so that he could appear to join the BOCES’ tax-deferred annuity retirement plan.  John Sise and the Girvin firm partners, including Cahill, arranged for HFM BOCES to list Sise as an “employee,” also with the title “Labor Relations Specialist,” for the nominal annual “salary” of $1,000.  This “salary” was paid over two pay periods, and was paid in exchange for a non-existent “special” project that the Girvin firm claimed Sise had completed for the BOCES.  John Sise and the Girvin firm also arranged for HFM BOCES to draft a letter indicating, incorrectly, that Sise was an “employee” of the BOCES and that he participated in the BOCES’ tax-deferred annuity plan, even though he never did any work for the BOCES.  Based on that letter, Siena agreed to waive the two-year waiting period before making employer contributions to Sise’s retirement plan that it would not have contributed otherwise.

Cahill’s and John Sise’s conduct were part of an ongoing practice common at the Girvin firm. Starting in 1989, several Girvin Firm lawyers requested, and HFM BOCES agreed, that they be appointed as putative “employees” of the BOCES with the title “Labor Relations Specialist.” The lawyers asked to be placed on the HFM BOCES payroll so they could obtain public pension benefits available only to public employees, and so that the school districts served by the BOCES could obtain state aid they were not entitled to.

The Girvin Firm and the school districts served by HFM BOCES would agree annually to an amount for the Girvin Firm’s retainer fees to provide labor relations services.  The schools would then pay those retainers to HFM BOCES, which in turn would pay individual lawyers at the Girvin Firm the same amount in the form of “salaries.”  It was left to the Girvin Firm to determine which lawyers would be improperly listed as “employees” to receive these “salaries” and what each individual’s cut would be, regardless of whether he or she performed any labor relations work for HFM BOCES.

For the entire 19-year period, services provided to HFM BOCES by the Girvin Firm’s lawyers were performed as outside retained counsel, not as “employees,” and none were eligible to receive public pension benefits in connection with the work.  In total, 12 Girvin Firm lawyers were improperly listed as HFM BOCES “employees,” which enabled them to receive credits in the state Employee Retirement System (“ERS”) normally reserved for public employees. Moreover, several of the firm’s lawyers who were listed as “employees,” including Cahill and John Sise, never worked on any labor relations matters for the BOCES or any of its component school districts.

Attorney General Cuomo’s ongoing statewide investigation of pension abuse includes more than 4,000 local governments and special districts across New York State, and school districts and all 37 Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (“BOCES”).  The investigation has already revealed that many lawyers had improperly remained on public payrolls for such extended periods of time, or were included on the payrolls of so many public sector employers simultaneously, that they accumulated substantial credits in the New York State pension system. 

To date, Attorney General Cuomo’s investigation into fraud and abuse in the public pension systems has returned $1.24 million to taxpayers through actions involving the conduct of more than 65 attorneys.

In May, the Attorney General announced settlements with the Buffalo firm of Hodgson Russ LLP and Capital Region attorney Maureen Harris, a former partner with the Girvin firm and a commissioner with the state Public Service Commission. Those settlements ended improper employment arrangements with school districts and various BOCES and rescinded all public benefits the lawyers had wrongfully received.  The Hodgson firm and Harris each paid $50,000 under the settlements

Three law firms and lawyers (the Central New York firm of Ferrara, Fiorenza, Larrison, Barrett and Reitz P.C., the New York City firm of Aiello and Cannick and Long Island attorney Gilbert Henoch) settled allegations in June ending improper employment arrangements with school districts and a Central New York Board of Cooperative Educational Services (“BOCES”).  The settlements also rescinded all public benefits wrongfully received and required the law firms and lawyers to pay the state a total $235,000.

More recently, the Attorney General reached settlement agreements with two law firms and their partners ending decades of abuse of the public pension system and calling for payments to the state totaling $600,000.  Under those settlements, the Girvin firm paid the state $500,000 and the Binghamton law firm Hogan, Sarzynski, Lynch, Surowka & DeWind LLP paid $100,000.

The Attorney General’s Office urges individuals with knowledge of any questionable arrangements between any BOCES, local governments, or school districts and their outside professionals to contact the Public Integrity Bureau by telephone at 212-416-8090 or by e-mail at public.integrity@ag.ny.gov.

The settlements announced today were handled by Assistant Attorney General Darcy M. Goddard and Mitra Hormozi, special counsel to the chief of staff.

 

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