Jan. 7—Supervising attorneys with the Niagara County public defenders office "may" have consumed alcoholic beverages while participating in "high-level," "work-lunch meetings" at area restaurants, the county's human resources director determined following a departmental review earlier this year.
In his report following a review by his office, director of human resources Peter Lopes concluded that associates working for the public defenders office, including top public defender Nick Robinson and his second-in-command, Vince Sandonato, "may" have "consumed one alcoholic beverages each" during these private outings.
Lopes found no evidence of "excessive drinking," according to a copy of his report which was obtained by this newspaper.
"On occasion and for privacy reasons, Nick, Vince and the supervising attorneys have conducted high-level meetings in area restaurants when privacy from other staff is required," Lopes noted in his written report. "It was determined that participants may have consumed one alcoholic beverage each. There was no excessive drinking that occurred during these work-lunch meetings."
Lopes conducted his investigation in response to the distribution of an anonymous letter that was highly critical of Robinson, Sandonato and their on-the-job conduct and management of the public defenders office and staff. The letter writer also accused both attorneys of spending afternoon hours on work days at a bar and restaurant in Wheatfield.
Copies of the letter were circulated in June to various public officials including members of the Niagara County Legislature. Copies were also sent to several local media outlets, including the Niagara Gazette and the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal.
According to his report, Lopes began interviewing "key" public defenders office staff to "obtain perspective and information relative to the claims" after receiving a copy of the anonymous letter on June 13. The list of interviewees included Sandonato, Robinson, six assistant public defenders, an administrative assistant and a senior paralegal.
In addition to allegations about public defenders consuming alcohol at off-site meetings during work hours, Lopes examined the letter writer's claims that Sandonato conducted private legal business and political activity with help from other county workers. In addition, his review took a closer look at allegations that, under Robinson's leadership, the public defenders office had become a "toxic" work environment.
In his report, Lopes describes the bulk of the claims as "not substantiated" or "not true as presented." At one point in the report, he describes the public defenders office work environment as "better than it has ever been before."
"It was determined that both the public defender (Robinson) and the first assistant public defender (Sandonato), along with the support of the public defender office leadership team are providing effective leadership to the entire office employee and staff, and proving exceptional legal defense work," Lopes wrote.
----Lopes did conclude that, "on one occasion" during a lunch break while he was not on county work hours, Sandonato, who is a former chairman of the Niagara County Republican Committee, received help from another assistant public defender, Mario Gregori Jr., and unidentified county paralegals as he ran "errands" that involved political activity.
While the unsigned-letter writer characterized those errands as being run on behalf of "Republican candidates," Lopes concluded that the claim was "not true as presented."
"This type of activity occurred on one occasion and took place during a lunch break and did not take place during working hours," the report reads.
In addition, the human resources director found that Sandonato gave an unidentified paralegal, who was working for the county at the time, "keys to a property to drop off at a law firm that was in the vicinity to where she was going to have lunch on that day."
Lopes describes the activity in question as happening "on one occasion."
The county's code of ethics bars county officers and employees from "directly or indirectly" compelling any non-elected officer or employee of the county to participate in an election campaign. It also bars county officers and employees from "using public resources that are not available to the public in general, such as county staff time, equipment, supplies or facilities, for private gain or personal purposes."
Breaches of the code of ethics are reviewed by the county's ethics board only in the event that the board is presented with a formal complaint. Under the ethics guidelines, individuals found in violation of the rules could face sanctions, including a fine or removal from their position.
County officials confirmed that no ethics complaints have been filed in connection with any of the activity covered by Lopes' report.
While the letter writer questioned the work activity and schedule of both Sandonato and Robinson, Lopes concluded that the county's top public defenders were handling their duties effectively overall.
Public defenders are employed on a part-time basis currently, and Lopes' report indicated that Robinson usually comes into the office twice a week, including Fridays, as he has to cover Lockport City Court. Lopes concluded that Robinson does have clients and "attends court regularly on behalf of his PD office clients throughout the week, including weekends if necessary." At the time the report was issued, Lopes noted that Robinson had 20 active felony cases assigned to him.
The report found that Sandonato and other office staff are "constantly updating" Robinson and "contacting him through the day about administrative issues, and public defender client cases and issues." The report further indicates that individuals who were interviewed by Lopes reported that Robinson is "the hardest worker in the office" and that "no other public defender has worked like Nick does."
"It was determined that the public defender (Robinson) reports to the office regularly, has a client caseload, is always accessible to all staff at all times, including events and weekends," the report notes.
Lopes determined that Sandonato comes into the office every day, handling "all of the office's administrative functions for the office daily." His duties include managing client assignments, court assignments and appearances on behalf of his clients.
The report noted that Sandonato routinely was reporting to the office at 10:05 a.m. due to "childcare issues" and, if he had court assignments, reported at 11 a.m. However, at the time of the report, Sandonato started reporting to the office at 9 a.m. along with other staff, while engaging in other work activities prior to 9 a.m. and "after normal work hours, including evenings and weekends as necessary." Lopes determined that Sandonato had 15 active cases at the time of the Human Resources review and that he was also second chair on a number of felony cases that were going to trial.
While the anonymous letter labeled Sandonato as "very difficult to deal with," "always angry" and "sometimes just mean," Lopes concluded that those claims were also not true and not substantiated.
In his report, Lopes suggests that if the letter writer found it difficult to work in the office at times they should contact human resources or a member of the county's leadership team to discuss their concerns, provide factual and specific details and also seek the assistance of the county's Employee Assistance Program.
"The office is a busy office with many clients and court cases, there are ongoing changes in regulations, requirements, with resultant and necessary updates to staff assignments that are based on operational needs to provide effective client service delivery and legal representation," the report concludes. "Changes are ongoing and required to provide effective legal defense and to meet all requirements. Most of the interviewed staff and employees have reported that we are running smoother than we have ever run in this office. Also, plans are in place for additional full-time staff in the future in order to meet increased demand on public defense legal representation and services."
----Neither Robinson nor Sandonato responded to the newspaper's request for comment on the letter or Lopes' report.
County spokesperson Kevin Schuler forwarded a request for comment on the contents of Lopes' report to County Attorney Claude Joerg, who issued a brief statement noting that the county does not discuss personnel matters.
"In the matter you reference, Niagara County handled this consistent with all of our standard personnel procedures," Joerg said.
County legislature Minority Caucus Leader Christopher Robins, D-Niagara Falls, said he reviewed a copy of the anonymous letter but had not seen the subsequent follow-up report from Lopes.
Robins said lawmakers requested an internal review at the time the letter was circulated and did receive an update on the findings from the human resources department during which they were told that most of the allegations were determined to be "unfounded."
As to the county's review of the claims, Robins said he felt the human resources department dealt with the matter appropriately.
"I was satisfied with what went on," he said.