Sunday, August 22, 2010

Green leaving county attorney job

Cheryl A. Green, the Erie County attorney whose hard line against the U.S. Justice Department's jail investigation turned heads around the region, will leave her job Sept. 3 to work for a law firm and run for State Supreme Court judge.

Green, a Republican, will jump into an already crowded field in Western New York's 8th Judicial District. Meanwhile, she will be "of counsel" to the law firm where former State Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco is a partner -- Lippes, Mathias, Wexler and Friedman.

Vacco was among those who in 2008 urged that the new county executive move Green from a small firm where she specialized in insurance-related cases into one of the county's most pressurized jobs, even though she had no municipal experience.

She was always willing to run through walls for Chris Collins, but even employees within Collins-controlled departments would grumble that Green, 40, was too combative.

"It has been a lifelong dream of mine to run for Supreme Court, and the time is right," Green said recently. "I will be able to bring the same energy and commitment that I brought to the county attorney's office to continue to serve the public in the larger community of the eight counties in this judicial district."

With 28 months as county attorney, Green has been one of Collins' longest-serving advisers. He is on his second budget director, his third deputy county executive, his second Social Services commissioner and his second Environment and Planning commissioner. But so far, he has named only one county attorney.

Before Green spent one day in the job, Collins fought with the County Legislature to bump up her salary by some $30,000 a year to put it around $124,000 -- in line with the salaries of past county attorneys after years on the job. He accused male and female lawmakers alike of bias against women when they balked at his request.

Aside from her role as a Collins legal adviser, Green ran a 29-employee Law Department that hires numerous outside firms for help in defending Erie County from dozens of legal complaints each year. The Law Department represents the government in Family Court cases. It is given $3 million a year to settle claims and hire outside lawyers.

Green also served as Collins' gladiator in assorted legal tests with his intra-government rivals -- Legislature Democrats, Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, and the state-appointed control board when Collins was at odds with the Fiscal Stability Authority.

In a case that will become part of her legacy, she concluded after some research that Erie County would be better off resisting the U.S. Justice Department's investigation of conditions inside the county Holding Center downtown and the Correctional Facility in Alden. Communities that had forced the agency to sue had emerged with less costly outcomes, she said.

She and Collins and his public relations team then attempted to convince taxpayers that the Justice Department was out to create jails with hotel amenities at taxpayer expense.

Yet Collins eventually decided to mediate rather than litigate the Justice Department lawsuit, and the first settlement called for an array of inexpensive new methods to prevent inmate suicides. The Collins team placed Vacco at the negotiating table to provide new weight and strike a settlement in which Erie County admitted no constitutional violations.

While assorted county lawmakers and lawyers outside the government saw it as foolhardy to fight the Justice Department rather than negotiate, Green last week said the decisions and strategy are "legally sound and always put taxpayers first." She counted it among her best moments as county attorney.

She also mentioned the move by Collins to file the legal papers that served as a catalyst to help Kaleida Health and Erie County Medical Center secure a joint operating agreement as called for by the state's Berger Commission.

On Collins' behalf, Green negotiated the terms by which the control board stepped in as the county's borrowing agent, ending a stalemate that had slowed road repairs and county-financed public works projects.

She also negotiated a complex accord that lays out the county's future support for ECMC and will move the Erie County Home from Alden to ECMC's campus on Grider Street in Buffalo.

"She was professional and hard-working throughout a long and sometimes complicated process," said lawyer Anthony J. Colucci III, who represents ECMC. "Lesser known publicly, she also moved and modernized the county attorney's office. She was, in other words, competent both as counsel and as administrator."

Collins aides said Green's departure will not change their strategy with the Justice Department lawsuits or the other legal fronts the county executive has opened.

"The county executive sets the course for the county attorney to follow. The role of the county attorney is to figure out the legal way to achieve the policy ends," said Christopher M. Grant, the Collins' chief of staff who knew Green from the small firm of Lustig and Brown and put up her name as county attorney.

Grant said that Green's first assistant county attorney, Kristin Klein Wheaton, will run the Law Department in the interim after Green departs. An outside panel headed by Buffalo Niagara Partnership Chairman Jonathan A. Dandes will search for Green's permanent replacement, Grant said.

By Matthew Spina

Source: The Buffalo News

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