DARREN LEE: BOARD OF HEALTH HEARING KEY PART OF UNDERSTANDING “ATTORNEY WARS” … LEE IS HANDLING ATTORNEY WARS, DEGNAN IS HANDLING DAMAGES HEARING IN MELVILLE STREET DEMOLITION … MANY QUESTIONS ABOUND, INCLUDING: CAN DEGNAN WIN ONE FOR THE TAXPAYERS?
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, TUESDAY, JAN. 29, 2013) — Why “Attorney Wars?” Why did the city of Pittsfield sue its former counselor, Rich Dohoney? The answer to that, assistant city solicitor Darren Lee tells THE PLANET, can be found in the Jan. 13, 2010 meeting of the Board of Health.
Lee works for the city under a contract that provides 17.5 hours of legal work per week. The other portion of his professional work is as a staff attorney for Martin & Oliveira, a Pittsfield law firm.
“In that hearing, it is somewhat clear that there was a claim that the condemnation order (on the now razed Melville Street apartment building owned by Madeline Culpo through a company called Pesu Inc., 210 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield; Peter Culpo is listed as company president) was rescinded and not in place,” Lee says. “Rich said [at that meeting] that the order [was still] valid. But for that advice, the city would have gone in a different direction.”
In other words, according to Lee, the city would not have demolished the building. Culpo sued the city for tearing down the building, and she won a judgment. Damages to be assessed will be part of a separate hearing, still to be scheduled.
Why Was Condemnation Order Rescinded? Lee Says Answer Can be Found in 1/13/10 Hearing
Another revelation lies in the division of responsibilities in the city solicitor’s office in the two cases — Case 1, the suit against Dohoney, what we’ve been calling “Attorney Wars;” Case 2, the hearing that will award damages to Culpo. Case 1, the action against Dohoney, is being handled by Lee. City solicitor Kathy Degnan is handling the damages hearing involving the Culpo building. One is tempted to extract some larger meaning from this division of assignments, but for now, we shall take then at face value.
In all likelihood, Case 1 will be settled before it ever reaches trial. If the city is going after Dohoney’s malpractice insurance to recoup it losses, fine. It has the right to do so. However, let’s not forget that it has the opportunity in Case 2 to whittle the award settlement down to $1. Culpo has asked the judge for $175,000.
We asked Lee if a condemnation order had ever bee in place against the Melville Street building. He said that one had been issued in 2007. Why, then, was it rescinded only three days later?
“They rescinded it, because there were people living there,” Lee said. He said the order would be rescinded until the tenants found new places to live. “There was no further condemnation order. It appeared to me watching the Board of Health meeting (of Jan. 13, 2010) that they knew there was not [a valid condemnation order in place]. Nonetheless, Lee says, at the hearing, Dohoney told the board that the rescinded order was still valid.
THE PLANET tried to locate the 1 hour and 38 minute hearing on the PCTV website. The program is in the archives of PCTV, but we could not find an active link. As an aside, we will say the PCTV website is one of the worst and most user-unfriendly we have ever encountered. Trying to find materials on the PCTV website is like walking blindfolded through the hedge maze at the Overlook Hotel. If someone can figure out how to activate the show from a computer, please let us know.
Questions, Questions, and Questions
Lee’s explanations prompt a few questions. There’s no doubt the Board of Health issued a condemnation order. Lee says the order was rescinded days later because people were living there. Didn’t the Board of Health know people were living there when it issued the order? Did the same Board of Health rescind the order? Moreover, how promptly did the tenants try to find new living arrangements? How long were these people allowed to live in apartments not fit for human habitation? And what of the landlord’s responsibilities? It seems apparent, unless there is some information we do not have, that Culpo did not bring the apartments back to code and standard. There may be other information that has yet to come out that would serve as mitigation, but the evidence that has to date surfaced suggests that the apartments on Melville Street were slums. Do the courts mean to tell us that slumlords get off free while the entity that tries to do something about the situation (i.e., the city) is the bad guy? Something seems wrong with that picture.
If the apartments had been promptly abandoned and the landlord did immediate repairs, we could see how the landlord would have a case. But that doesn’t appear to have been the case with the Melville Street apartments. When the Board of Health met on Jan. 13, 2010, it seems from press accounts of court documents and from attorney Lee that there had been no repairs to the units that would bring them up to code.
Nonetheless, the city is suing Dohoney for malpractice, specifically, for giving bad advice. They will go after his insurance, but what professional wants to lose a case and then be stuck with the renewal bill for malpractice insurance? As THE PLANET said yesterday, would this case even have been filed had councilors, perceived to be “Ruberto people,” not gone after Degnan for her alleged misrepresentations in the Spectrum case?
Is that the next step should Bianchi lose in November? Will the new mayor want to sue Degnan for malpractice in the Spectrum matter? Where does this kind of vicious cycle end, and what message does this kind of in-fighting send to any outside interests that might be considering Pittsfield as a future home for a business or a residence? Who would come there of their free will?
Damages Hearing May Be Degnan’s Crucible
The other key legal action from all this is the damages hearing that has yet to take place. Culpo told Judge John Agostini that she wants an award of $175,000 for the loss of her building. Obviously, the city has the right to contend that. It should do so, vigorously. Degnan is handling that case. It will be a decent test of her legal abilities. Will she be able to convince the judge that the damages should be way less than $175,000 — say, $1, awarded as a token amount? Will she be able to do the job? Can Degnan win one for the taxpayers? If she can. that might go a long way in helping to contain the Civil War that’s still smoldering in city politics.
Lee had an interesting suggestion. While he made clear he had no part in the awards hearing and that it was Degnan’s baby all the way, he did say he thought Dohoney should be part of the legal team for the city. That would mean he and Degnan working together. Wouldn’t that be something, maybe like the other side of a Dream Team coin.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.