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October 20, 2019Cart

Business

by Westchester County Business Journal
by WCBJ

Unpaid legal bills prompts law firm to sue Mount Vernon

A law firm has sued Mount Vernon and Mayor Richard Thomas for not paying legal bills and has notified the City Council that it can no longer represent it.

Silverberg Zalantis LLP of Tarrytown is demanding $42,120 for unpaid bills going back to 2015, according to the lawsuit filed on Dec. 26 in Westchester Supreme Court.

Thomas has refused to sign checks for legal payments, the complaint states, “due to perceived slights against him by other city officials and out of sheer spite.”

“An intramural spat between government officials,” the firm said, “is not a valid basis for refusing to pay valid invoices.”

The complaint names Comptroller Maureen Walker and the city council, but the allegations focus squarely on Thomas.

The problem lies with Walker, Thomas replied in a written statement today, whom he accused of selectively making payments to vendors, including other law firms.

“This is how and why Mount Vernon has developed a bad reputation to do business with,” he said.

He foreshadowed that position in a Nov. 22 letter to Walker to justify withholding his signature on a check to Silverberg Zalantis.

“Only one politically connected law firm is being compensated,” he said, while “numerous attorneys have been retained by the city of Mount Vernon on a multitude of actions and they have yet to be paid.”

Silverberg Zalantis has represented the city council since 2015, mostly on land use and zoning matters. It charges $300 an hour for partners, $180 to $220 for associates and $75 for paralegals.

The complaint traces the dispute to early 2016 when Thomas sued Walker and the city council for trying to fire certain mayoral appointees, refusing to pay employees, issuing checks without his signature and other allegations.

The city’s corporate counsel represented Thomas, so city council authorized Silverberg Zalantis to act on its behalf. Thomas vetoed the resolution and the council overrode the veto.

“For this firm to take action against the city of Mount Vernon constitutes a conflict of interest,” Thomas said in a letter to the council explaining his veto. “The city council must identify a law firm that does not have a history of working for the city and is not privy to information pertaining to the operations of the city.”

Acting Justice Robert A. Neary dismissed all but one of the mayor’s demands in his lawsuit and all of the counterclaims. He directed the city council and the comptroller to cease issuing checks without Thomas’ signature.

Now Thomas is accused of refusing to sign checks approved by the city council and the comptroller.

“All of the checks were cut and issued and signed by her,” Jaevon Boxhill, deputy comptroller, said today on behalf of Walker, whose term in office ends on Dec. 31. “They were sent to the mayor and he refused to honor them.”

No one from the city council responded to a request for comment.

Silverberg Zalantis said the city owes $26,276, including interest, for representing the  council against Thomas.

It also claims the city has not paid for work on miscellaneous issues going back to 2015, advice on The Pointe urban renewal project, work on the “Third Street matter” and advice on the “Wartburg matter.” In all, the firm claims unpaid bills totaling $42,120, with interest accruing at 18 percent per annum or $552 a month.

Today, Thomas pledged to work with the new comptroller and new city council members, “to repair Mount Vernon’s damaged credit” and make the city “business friendly again.”

Silverberg Zalantis notified the city council on Oct. 4 that it will no longer work on any matters until it receives full payment on all invoices.

“While Mount Vernon has given us a volume of work,” the firm said, “getting paid has been an unending struggle which has reached the point of absurdity.”