• Tue. Sep 20th, 2022

MDC wants answers from its president on billings; ready to commission an independent investigation – Hartford Courant

ByChad J. Johnson

Aug 5, 2022

Metropolitan District The commissioners are pressing powerful Chairman William A. DiBella for answers and could order an investigation after uncovering what they described as tens of thousands of dollars in questionable billings by one of their outside attorneys.

In two meetings this week and in subsequent interviews, commissioners and MDC staff said they wanted to know who authorized about $80,000 of legal work by James Sandler, a private practice lawyer in Bloomfield who has worked on a contract basis for the commission since 1972 .

Of the roughly $80,000 in Sandler’s billings at issue, the commission only paid about $12,000. Payment of the remainder is on hold while the commission considers what the work was for, what it accomplished and who authorized it, commissioners and staff said.

Permission issues arose last month when Sandler submitted bills for months of work through 2021 and 22 – after the commission ruled last year it would no longer pay for outside legal work in certain areas until its working committees develop specific plans and budgets.

Discussions of a likely investigation began this week after Sandler suggested to commission staff in a series of emails that DiBella had authorized the work — regardless of opposition from the wider commission — and had a budget of $85,000 to pay for it, according to a commissioner and commission attorney who have copies of the correspondence.

“Bill told me he had $85,000,” Sandler wrote via email to commission attorney Christopher Stone in late July, according to correspondence obtained by the Courant.

DiBella did not return a phone call Friday.

A preliminary look at Sandler’s work for the commission, which has its own legal staff, shows he’s collected $2.8 million in fees from the MDC since 2008, an average of nearly $190,000 a year. year, according to one commissioner and his staff.

Sandler, who features a photograph of an MDC tank on his law firm’s webpage, defended his work for the commission but referred specific questions about billing and other matters to his attorney, Raymond Hassett. , who did not respond to phone and email inquiries on Friday. .

The MDC provides water and sewer services to hundreds of thousands of ratepayers in Harford and surrounding towns.

West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor, whose city is one of the biggest consumers of MDC services, said Friday that “concerns” about legal bills are “worrying” and called for an independent investigation in a letter to the committee.

“As you know, how the MDC spends money collected from taxpayers and municipalities is of significant public interest,” Cantor wrote. “The MDC must conduct itself in a transparent and accountable manner. I am therefore writing to request that the Internal Audit Committee engage the services of an outside law firm to conduct an independent investigation and assessment of this matter. »

The commission began questioning payments to outside attorneys a year ago and over the next few months agreed, without passing formal resolutions, to end such payments when disposing of surplus real estate. , acquiring technology and formulating development plans at Hartford’s South Meadows. Payments for outside attorneys could resume when committees responsible for those areas develop plans and budgets, the commission has decided.

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Sandler had a long-standing contract to provide legal services to the commission. But the contract was not renewed when it expired at the end of 2021, a commissioner and a staff member said.

Despite the commission’s agreement to stop payments and end contact, commissioners and staff said in meetings last week and in subsequent interviews that Sandler continued to submit invoices for work legal until 2022.

Commissioner Richard Bush of West Hartford said he has commission records showing Sandler submitted bills for 79 meetings, with total billings of more than $58,000 between Jan. 3 and June 22 of this year.

In addition to questions about who authorized the work, several commissioners said they’ve heard complaints that people pictured on bills for attending meetings say they don’t remember having done so. A commission staffer who has copies of the invoices and other documents said DiBella is listed on the invoices as having attended at least 70 of the meetings.

There are also questions about what one MDC employee called “aggressive billing.” Commissioner Raymond Sweezy of Rocky Hill said he had a copy of an invoice that shows Sandler charged $21,000 to “review” a real estate fence by another outside attorney who charged the MDC about $7,000. Sweezy also said he has reviewed numerous invoices for legal work in areas he believes the MDC has no interest in.

Based on Sweezy’s motions at meetings on Monday and Thursday, the committee voted to ask DiBella to explain in writing whether he had cleared Sandler and why. If questions remain after DiBella’s response, Sweezy and several other commissioners said it’s likely they’ll hire an outside firm to investigate.

“Bill and I have worked well over the years and I just want to give the President a good shake to answer, did he do it or not?” Sweezy said.