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Empire Justice Center may get $427,000 in legal fees from Suffolk

A resolution to permit borrowing for $427,000 in legal and monitoring fees stemming from a federal lawsuit challenging delays in processing public assistance applicants was approved by a Suffolk legislative committee Tuesday.

The money will go to pay legal fees of the Empire Justice Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group, and monitoring costs for Medicaid, food stamps and temporary assistance applications from 2009 through year’s end.

While the suit was settled with no county liability, Gail Lolis, deputy county attorney, said the Justice Center is entitled to fees. Lolis said the center has a motion pending in federal court to continue monitoring indefinitely to ensure prompt handling of applications for those seeking more than one service from the county.

Social services officials say further monitoring is unnecessary because the county is in substantial compliance with federal rules requiring processing within 30 days.

The committee’s 4-1 vote sends the borrowing resolution to the full legislature for a vote Dec. 15.

Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), the lone dissenter, said the potential for ongoing payments could affect a final vote.

“It just blows me away that we’re paying $427,000 . . . for a case that was settled with no monetary damages,” Trotta said. “I thought we only had to pay when we lose.”

But Lolis said the settlement “number could go up substantially” if lawmakers reject the negotiated deal.

When the lawsuit was filed in 2008 at the height of the fiscal meltdown, Suffolk, on average, took 63 days to process applicants.

Linda Hassberg, the center’s senior Long Island attorney, said the settlement “has ensured they [applicants] get medical care and food stamps in a timely fashion.”

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