Lockport city attorney's office hit with ethics question

Feb. 7—LOCKPORT — Recently a local attorney questioned whether the appointments of David Blackley as Corporation Counsel and Anthony Serianni and Kathleen Kugler as deputy counsels creates a conflict of interest for the City of Lockport.

Posing the question to the New York State Bar Association, Steven G. Leventhal of Leventhal, Mullaney & Blinkoff, LLP, second vice chair of NYSBA's Local and State Government Law Section and a hearing officer for the New York State Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government responded. In an email exchange, Leventhal said there is cause for concern stemming from the fact that two of the appointees also are employed as public defenders.

Newly appointed Corporation Counsel David Blackley, who has about 15 years of prior experience as a deputy city counselor dating back to the mid 2000s, says unequivocally that "there is no conflict" within the municipal law office that he is now leading.

Leventhal's opinion stems from the NYSBA Committee of Professional Ethics, which says that a county or town attorney who prosecutes criminal cases shouldn't be allowed to do any defense work.

Currently, Blackley and deputy corporation counsel Kathleen Kugler both do defense work for Niagara County. Blackley is the second assistant in the Public Defenders office and Kugler is in charge of the "conflicts" office, which represents those who cannot be defended by the Public Defender because of conflicts of interest stemming from the PD's prior experience with a defendant.

Blackley said neither he nor Kugler handles prosecutions for the city or the county. Further, he said, second deputy city attorney Anthony Serianni, who is acting as the city's prosecutor, does not do criminal defense work in private practice. In this way, he said, potential conflicts of interest are avoided.

According to Leventhal, that's questionable, given the degree of knowledge between the attorneys who work together in the Corporation Counsel's office.

Briefly, Leventhal cited a legal opinion that says the actions of one attorney in a firm reflect on all of them. Thus, if one attorney in a firm — or a municipal law office — prosecutes criminal charges, then they are all involved and none of them should be doing any defense work at all.

"Prohibitions on prosecutors defending criminal cases are ordinarily imputed in the entire county or municipal law office," Leventhal stated.

Further, Leventhal pointed out, Blackley and Kugler working together in the Corporation Counsel's office could affect their county roles. For example, if there was a conflict in which a public defender, such as Blackley, could not take on a case, that conflict would include Kugler because they're co-workers at city hall.

Blackley asserted his and Kugler's work for the county does not create any conflict of interest for the city. Further, he said, he does not supervise Serriani as the city prosecutor and has no knowledge of his cases.

"There is no conflict," Blackley stated in a written reply to questions. He added that he has worked in Lockport's Corporation Counsel office since 2004, "excluding the last administration, and this has never been an issue."

Blackley, Kugler and Serianni all were appointed to their city posts by newly installed Mayor John Lombardi III in January.