Saturday, January 1, 2011

Attorney Invoices: Mistakes Were Made

"'s like a cop pulling you over and demanding twenty bucks for gas..."

by Will, the dog guy

At this week's town board meeting (Thursday December 30), Martin Roby, the chicken guy, open government activist, raised the issue of attorney invoices. Attorney pay was the first part in the budget I investigated, to the extent I could figure out what is going on given way the town chose to hide the attorney invoices.

So far I have only popped the hood on one part of the budget and the engine isn't a fine tuned machine - more like a lot of mice in the radiator using the insulation for a nest. 10,000 dollars of taxpayer money is just missing in action and Supervisor Valerie Bertram refuses to look into the issue. But we'll get to that.

Martin is concerned about the appearance of petty corruption and wanted to give elected and appointed officials a chance to explain why the appearance of impropriety was not in fact inappropriate. I've been trying to get a response for a long time, so it seemed time to bring the issue up at a public meeting.

Here is a discussion at the December meeting when Mr. Rappleyea admits a mistake.

Martin spoke specifically of an incident in June 2009 in which I was billed 437.50 for research following my sessions with the planning board to get the permit to operate a home business.

Martin argues that giving a guy a bill for $437.50 at the meeting when he is granted a permit (for research done 4 months earlier) without warning him is like a cop pulling you over and asking for $20 for gas, Martin said. Except the cop didn't actually buy any gas.

Tal came up to me privately after the meeting was adjourned, after I got my permit in 2009. This gave me the impression that he has to pay an unadvertised fee in order to get my permit. The normal and legally mandated way to get applicants to pay consulting fees (engineering usually) is to set up an escrow account and have the applicant pay a sum in advance.

But the mistakes made in this case do not stop with the manner of billing. There is also the issue of whether Mr. Rappleyea did or did not do any research.

He did not, in fact, do any billable research. He billed me and the town for nothing.

The April 2009 invoice to the town of Stuyvesant for 687.50, of which I paid 437.50. Mr. Rappleyea did attend the meetings.

How do I know the research noted in the bill is wrong?

For the research to be billable to the town or to an applicant before a board, the research should pertain to some issue raised during the hearing or necessary to make a determination by the board. No such issue appears in the minutes of any of the relevant hearings.

My site plan review was one paragraph long. I doubt it took Tal 3.5 hours to review it.

Did someone ask him to research something? Was there a matter of law we needed to settle in order to proceed? Was there anything unknown or any controversies about any matter? Mr. Rappleyea does not now recall by memory what the issue was, as he stated at the December 30 meeting.

Further, the attorney's research would have had to be given or used at the time of the hearing to be billed at the time of hearing. If Mr. Rappleyea did not write a report for the board or speak to the board, or maybe present his research in the hearing or present me, since I paid for it, with some kind of report, then why is the research billable? Professional development is not billable to the board for this hearing. Research should be about an issue that pertains to this particular hearing and should be presented at the time of the hearing to someone involved, someone who then used or acknowledged the research at the time.

I have FOILed all the minutes and attachments to those minutes. There is no attorney research in those documents.

Bringing this issue up at the town meeting was no ambush: I have been writing to Valerie Bertram and sending in FOIL requests for months about attorney invoices. I have noted copies of these letters in the links at the end of this post.

We have one incident that appears to involve inappropriate timing and billing for work that was not done. We now have some idea of what the April 2009 bill involves. What about the other 11 months?

I FOILed the invoices for 2009 and Mr. Rappleyea, presumably, blacked out all the information on those invoices. I cannot see what issues he was working on, what percent of the time he was billed was spent on research versus, say, consultation or paperwork.

One month clearly, April, includes some problems. The other 11 months are blacked out, like secrets in a spy movie.

Why are they blacked out? On December 30 at the meeting, Tal said that he works for the board, not the town in general. Here is the audio of Tal's position. He said that he is allowed to black out or hide information that may be part of litigation or possibly part of litigation. Here is the audio of the discussion of potential litigation and actual litigation.

There was no ongoing litigation at the time and there is none now. So actual litigation cannot be a reason for his hiding his invoices.

What about potential litigation? Mr. Rappleyea blacked out every single item on every single invoice except for the work he did answering Martin Roby's FOIL requests.

Is Tal sure that Martin would never sue the town because he objects to his FOIL requests? Is everyone else possibly going to sue the town, including Columbia County, CSX railroad and the New York State Greenway agency, but not Martin Roby?

If the possibility of a lawsuit justifies hiding every single issue in the invoices except for Martin's FOIL requests, then it pretty much means Tal believes he does not have to expose any of his invoices to scrutiny.

Yet we know that one of the invoices was a mistake by his own admission. We know that there is a strong suggestion of fraud in one invoice. I would like to see the other eleven months. They're hidden. I have appealed the hiding of the content of the invoices. Check out the links below.

So let's look at the money. In 2009 the town of Stuyvesant spent $31,483 on attorney fees, according to the budget, only for Tal, there were no other lawyers paid. The 12 invoices noted above only added up to $21,450.

$10,000 is missing.

In September, I realized there was a $10,000 difference between the bills and the budget. So, in October 2010, I asked again for all documents adding up to and necessary to understand $31,383. I received a one page print out called "General Fund Vendors Ledger." That print out added up to $28,732.

I wrote a letter in November asking for an explanation, sending it to Valerie Bertram, supervisor, Melissa Naegeli, town clerk, and to Tal Rappleyea, attorney. I waited two weeks and got no response so I sent in a FOIL for attorney contracts and cancelled checks and other documents necessary to figure out this issue without an explanation from the chief executive of the town, Valerie Bertram.

Mistakes were made.

Substance of the FOIL appeal
Val's response to my appeal
My response to Val

Invoice January
Invoice July
Invoice Feb
Invoice June
Unblacked out invoice (as presented in June 2009)

Chart with missing money
Follow up FOIL after not receiving response to the above request for an explanation

Chicken Law video

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