Sunday, August 31, 2008

Williamsburg, NY - Housing Authority Hires One of the Nation’s Largest Law Firms in Elevator-Death Inquiry

Williamsburg, NY - The New York City Housing Authority has hired ReedSmith L.L.P., one of the nation’s largest law firms, to represent it in the Brooklyn district attorney’s inquiry into the death of a 5-year-old boy who fell down an elevator shaft in a public housing complex last week.
The accident has put renewed scrutiny on the Housing Authority over the safety and maintenance of its 3,337 elevators, which have drawn frequent complaints from public housing residents.
The Housing Authority said it had turned to outside counsel to help it respond to subpoenas and other matters involved in the criminal investigation.A spokesman for the authority said that on counsel’s advice, it would also stop responding to requests from the news media for information and data related to the safety and inspections of its elevators.
“As a result of this action, absolute priority is being given to the D.A.’s inquiry,” the spokesman, Howard Marder, said in an e-mail message. “Accordingly, based on counsel’s advice, it is premature and not appropriate to supply to news sources piecemeal information relating to this incident, including any systemwide information that may prejudice the inquiry.”
The boy, Jacob Neuman, died on Aug. 19 while trying to escape from a jammed elevator in the Taylor-Wythe housing complex in South Williamsburg.
Residents of the 12-story building say the elevators have been a source of frustration for years, often stalling between floors. The elevators were to be overhauled in 2004, but the work was deferred twice because of budget cuts.The elevators appear to have been overdue for an inspection. City law requires elevators to be inspected about every six months, but the last inspection on record was Oct. 3, 2007.
The district attorney’s office has subpoenaed safety and inspection records for the elevator. The Housing Authority has not yet turned over the records, said one official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the case and therefore spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Housing Authority, which employs about 100 lawyers and 100 support-staff members to handle litigation, would not say how much it was paying ReedSmith.
It is not unusual for government agencies to hire private counsel in criminal inquiries. But the move comes as the authority, the largest public housing authority in the country, is dealing with a financial crisis. Its budget deficit this year is $170 million and expected to climb to $207 million in 2012.
Authority officials blame dwindling financial support from Washington for the shortfall.
The agency has threatened to shut hundreds of community centers and resident programs to close its budget gap.
A spokeswoman for ReedSmith declined to comment.

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