The Erie County Water Authority needs an estimated $1 billion to replace all its outdated pipes, yet it recently spent more than $100,000 on an outside law firm and wouldn't explain why.
Dan Telvock with Investigative Post reported on WGRZ in November that the Water Authority didn't meet federal criteria when it came to testing for lead, because it did not sample highest risk homes. Also, up to a third of the homes tested in 2013 belonged to current and former employees.
At its December 1, 2016 meeting, the commissioners of the Water Authority unanimously approved a resolution declaring an emergency so it could hire a law firm "to provide expert advice and representation and review legal and potential environmental issues."
Questions have been swirling as to why those legal services were needed. But then, this weekend, the Buffalo News reported new information. The Water Authority paid a firm $400 per hour "to represent it in action against Investigative Post for improper conduct," according to the News, which obtained the information through a Freedom of Information Law request.
Thirty pages of legal invoices added up to a total cost of $129,507.
"As you look through these 30 pages of invoices, can you glean any idea as to why they hired this firm?" 2 On Your Side's Michael Wooten asked Telvock.
"No," he responded. "It's heavily redacted, and you can't even tell what some of the meetings they had were about."
Telvock said the Water Authority never complained about his reporting and never asked for any correction.
"The facts of my story, most of them were confirmed by the Water Authority," Telvock said.
The Water Authority was upset that Telvock kept knocking at an office door after commissioners refused to answer his questions following a November 2016 meeting.
In a response Monday to 2 On Your Side, a spokesperson for the Water Authority said, "We retained counsel after false and irresponsible accusations were made against the Water Authority by a part-time blogger who acted erratically in our offices. We received the analysis, advice and counsel we required."
It's false that Telvock is a "part-time blogger." He's a full-time journalist with Investigative Post. It's unclear why the spokesperson for the Water Authority tried to denigrate Telvock's work.
That spokesperson would not provide any details on what he claimed were "false and irresponsible accusations" in Telvock's report.
The Water Authority spokesperson, who further said 2 On Your Side was "chasing (a) non-story," claimed the authority was correct in its decision to heavily redact the invoices, claiming attorney-client privilege. Legal and open government experts disagreed with that assessment, according to Saturday's article in the Buffalo News.
Joseph Lorigo, the majority leader of the Republican-controlled Erie County Legislature, told 2 On Your Side he wants answers.
"Don't we have a right to know how they're spending that money?" Wooten asked Lorigo.
"Yea," he responded by phone on Monday. "I'm disappointed that they haven't been straight-forward, and it's something that I've asked for a number of times, so we'll bring them in. We'll have a conversation about it, and see what's going on."
Lorigo plans to ask the Water Authority board members to appear before the legislature at a meeting in September.
2 On Your Side will continue to follow developments with this story.