ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. (WIVB) — In 2003, a grand jury exonerated several Erie County Holding Center deputies of criminal fault in the death of a 28-year-old man they were attempting to move to a local hospital.
The decision turned controversial only when the State Commission of Correction found that Michael Bennett’s 2002 death was preventable if he had received proper urgent mental health care while he was in the holding center.
In 2004, Bennett’s parents hired famous attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who represented O.J. Simpson in his murder trial, for a civil wrongful death lawsuit that the county would settle four years later for $1 million.
It is one of the most expensive settlements involving the sheriff’s office since 2005.
As for lawsuits, county taxpayers forked out more than $1 million in outside counsel fees to defend the sheriff’s office in a class action lawsuit over strip searches. The county won the lawsuit, but it lagged on for 14 years.
This, too, is one of the most expensive outside counsel fees involving the sheriff’s office in the same timeframe.
The County Attorney’s Office is responsible for providing legal services for county agencies, but a county administrative code allows the office to hire outside counsel.
A News 4 Investigates analysis of the hidden costs of settlements and outside counsel for more than three-dozen lawsuits involving the Erie County Sheriff’s Office found that taxpayers have paid out more than $9 million since 2005.
News 4 obtained this information through two Freedom of Information law requests; typically, these details are kept secret.
And the total costs could be higher, though, because a county official told News 4 that settlements are not tracked by department or by claim.
In other words, it is unclear if News 4’s Freedom of Information law request uncovered the full accounting of all settlements made on behalf of the sheriff’s office.
“It paints a picture,” said Timothy Meyers, the majority leader for the Erie County Legislature.
“I think the answer is we’ve got to do better. Everybody’s got to do better. I don’t know if it’s training or what it is, but it puts up a huge red flag.”
And with several high-profile civil cases against the sheriff’s office involving deaths of inmates and other incidents that continue to work through the courts, the county could see large increases in these costs over the next few years, depending on the outcomes.
In 2012, the Erie County Legislature requested regular public reporting by the County Attorney’s Office of legal settlements and outside counsel costs, not only for the sheriff’s office, but for all county agencies.
But the resolution went nowhere.
As a result, the County Attorney’s Office does not actively report this data to the county legislature, unlike in the City of Buffalo, whose council members get regular reports on how much the city forks out in claims for its police department and other agencies.
Meyers said seeing the amounts for outside counsel and settlements for the sheriff’s office alone for the first time makes him wonder if the legislature needs to revisit the request.
“As far as a settlement or ongoing litigation, that’s one thing,” Meyers said.
“You can’t talk about a case, but there’s no reason why we should not know to date we got this much money invested in this lawsuit. I mean, that’s our money that’s going out the door and that’s what we’re there for to oversee that money.”
The county pays for settlements and outside counsel fees through its Risk Retention Fund, that gets an annual windfall of between $3 million to $6 million in taxpayer funds.
In other words, the county is self-insured, unlike other localities that have insurance cover any costs of litigation and settlements.
John Greenan, the undersheriff for the sheriff’s office, said they are cognizant of the settlements paid out, but do not track fees for outside counsel.
“We certainly have no control over the number of lawsuits that are filed,” Greenan said.
“As we all know, the government is always a easy target because we have deep pockets.”
Greenan said more lawsuits against the sheriff’s office seem to have come with a growing negative sentiment against law enforcement.
“People can file a lawsuit for anything, for any reason,” he said.
“In fact, they do.”
Greenan also said not every lawsuit deals with alleged violations of someone’s civil rights.
“If you look at the lawsuits you are speaking of that you’ve seen in your analysis, those lawsuits are everything from the unions suing us because they have some issue with how we interpreted the contract on what they should make for overtime to somebody slipping and falling out of the shower and hurting their elbow.”
Regardless, Meyers said it might be time that county taxpayers begin to get this information on a more regular basis, like how it is done in the City of Buffalo, where council members are briefed on settlements and lawsuits during meetings.
“I’m sure that there is going to be talks about this coming up and I’ll push for them,” Meyers said.
“I cannot believe the scenario where both sides of the aisle do not want to have discussions on this because we’re talking about real dollars, real big dollars.”
Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here.