State racks up multimillion-dollar bills for officials’ legal defense

Former State Sen. Majority Leader Joseph Bruno following his 2010 sentencing. AP Photo/Mike Groll

Former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno has been trying — unsuccessfully so far — to get the State of New York to pay for some $2 million in legal costs connected to his defense on criminal charges that have since been dropped. But meanwhile hundreds of other state workers have succeeded in getting their legal bills paid by the state, to the tune of $193 million since 1999.

Bruno’s petition for the reimbursement was made under the little-known Section 19 of the Public Officers Law, which requires New York State to cover “reasonable attorneys’ fees and litigation expenses incurred” by both current and former state employees upon acquittal or dismissal of criminal charges.

State records obtained by The New York World show that most state officials entangled in the legal system turn to Section 17 of the same law, which entitles employees to indemnification — essentially, protection against having to pay out of pocket — for legal penalties and costs connected to civil lawsuits. The payouts include funds for plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees, settlement sums and even jury awards against state workers.

The Office of the State Comptroller produced the records in response to a freedom of information request, after the Attorney General’s Office did not release the data despite an identical request. (Assistant Attorney General Joshua Pepper did, however, note in a letter to The New York World that if the AG defends an eligible officer or employee, “the state does not necessarily spend any money specifically for that defense.”)

Most of the $193 million in payments were related to civil cases, with only just over $500,000 reimbursed to state workers under Section 19. The fattest check was for a settlement of $8 million in 2000 for families of inmate victims in the brutal 1971 Attica prison uprising. It was one of 35 individual payments above $1 million.

Employees or officials who are eligible for reimbursements or indemnification under either section of the state law need only apply by writing in to the attorney general, and there are no limits to how much the state — and taxpayers — will have to spend on each case.

“What is ‘reasonable’ is often determined on a case-by-case basis and negotiated on its own, especially with the Section 19 payments that cover criminal matters,” wrote OSC deputy press secretary Mark Johnson, in response to inquiries. “We cannot make any statement about what should be considered ‘reasonable’.”

Johnson added that the state maintains a rate schedule of recommended attorneys’ fees that is “generally followed for Section 17 cases,” but “payments vary from case to case and may deviate because of the circumstances.” In 1992, then-Comptroller Edward V. Regan denied a $480,000 reimbursement requested by former Senate minority leader Manfred Ohrenstein, because the hourly rates of up to $400 charged by some of Mr. Ohrenstein’s attorneys was higher than the $255 top rate paid by the state. The current top rate, according to the schedule provided by Johnson, is $225.

State employees and officials in civil suits are only supposed to get their costs covered by the state if the harm was accidental. Section 17 states that “the duty to indemnify…shall not arise where the injury or damage resulted from intentional wrongdoing on the part of the employee.” (For more on the law, see our explainer.) But workers have had their legal costs covered in cases where plaintiffs suffer at their hands. In 2009, the state paid nearly $900,000 to an inmate-plaintiff  and his attorneys after a jury held four state correctional officers liable for using excessive force and a failure to protect. Each liable defendant faced punitive damages from $10,000 to $100,000 – all paid for by the state.

“Those defendants were found liable,” said the plaintiff’s attorney, Glenn Miller. “There was nothing unintentional about what they did to my client.”

When questioned on the consistency of the law’s application, the size of New York State’s expenditures under Sections 17 and 19, and the lack of payout limits, the AG declined comment.

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