Kelleher reflects on life in the public eye
By MATT CHANDLER
[email protected] | 716-541-1654
Attorney Brendan Kelleher's work in the public sector can be traced to long before he accepted a position as general counsel to the Buffalo Board of Education.
To get a hint of his past work, one need only glance around his current office at the law firm of Hodgson Russ in Buffalo. There you'll see a framed photograph of a young Kelleher embracing former Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Working for Kennedy helped Kelleher cut his teeth, he says. After working in private practice, he knew he'd return to public service if and when the opportunity presented itself. So in 2010, when he was offered a position with the Buffalo Board of Education, he jumped at the chance. Little did he know he would be walking into the crosshairs of the public, the media and a certain gubernatorial candidate - all of whom were frustrated with the state of education in the city and looking to hold someone accountable.
After 14 months in City Hall, Kelleher has returned to Hodgson Russ and the world of private practice. He sat down last week to discuss his time spent in the public eye and what he really thinks of Carl Paladino, who once referred to Kelleher as someone who "illustrates a lack of integrity, character and ethic in his maligned service to the Board of Education."
Following is an edited version of that conversation.
BLJ: When someone googles your name, they can really get a sense of what it was like to work in City Hall. Did you know what you were getting yourself into when you signed on?
BK: I knew going in that I wasn't going to do it long term, but it was something I've always wanted to do. I always thought I would go to law school to work in politics and public service, so when I came back here I sort of felt like I took the easy way out. I always knew I would go back into public service. My thought was, it's easy to sit over here in the comfort of Hodgson Russ and criticize what's going on. But it's another thing to go take a shot and do my best to not save the world but do my small part to serve our community and our kids.
BLJ: After what you went through - public criticism, controversy, a call for you to be disbarred - do you have any regrets about your decision?
BK: No. I'm glad I did it. It was a great experience. And coming back here, I can draw on those experiences.
BLJ: You said you took the position with the Board of Education because it was something you always wanted to do. Was it frustrating to be the focal point of criticism, especially when you had to remain silent in the face of it?
BK: You know going into City Hall that it is going to be a rough ride in some ways, although I don't think anyone would have predicted how the last year played out. Taking the shots is part of being a lawyer. You take the shots for your client and you move on. The media side of things was frustrating in some ways, but at the same time, it is the nature of our business with the attorney-client privilege. I read a lot about advice I didn't give, and I've read plenty that wasn't true. But you can't go out and correct every single inaccuracy. You've got a job to do and I think, for some people, the hardest part of doing that job is minimizing the distractions.
BLJ: Did your background in the public sector better prepare you for what went on in City Hall?
BK: To work for Ted Kennedy right out of college was probably a good thing. It taught me in a big way that you can't respond to everything that is being written about you. It was also where I got to see the importance of minimizing the distractions. While I was in Washington, we went through a couple of the family funerals and you would see the guy come into work the next day. It taught me that no matter what you've got going on, you have to come in and do your job.
BLJ: What was your reaction to the letter Carl Paladino sent to the Erie County Bar Association Grievance Committee this summer, asking for you to be disbarred?
BK: I had gotten a heads up that he was going to do something like that. I can't talk too much about it because the judiciary law prohibits people accused from talking about any potential grievance or anything else. To the best of my knowledge, I have no pending grievance against me and that is all I can really say.
BLJ: A lot of what Paladino said made its way to the media. He questioned your ethics, your integrity, your character. He said you offered "tainted and improper advice" to the Board of Education. Did you have any concerns as you prepared to return to private practice that some of that would linger?
BK: I wasn't too concerned. I think people understand the nature of this business - that you are going to have some people taking shots at you, fair or unfair, founded or unfounded. Clients have certainly been very understanding. Republican and Democrat, management or labor - they have all said, 'If there is any way we can help you out, we will.' I certainly didn't agree with all of the actions taken by individuals with their agendas, but that is all in the past now.
BLJ: Have you spoken with Paladino since he wrote the letter?
BK: I did talk to Mr. Paladino after Dr. (James) Williams left, and I think we are all set. You can't hold a vindictive grudge forever. I'm Irish, but not that much. It is something that happened, and it is best left in the past.
BLJ: As you settle back into your practice - a good chunk of which focuses on education law - what do you see as key challenges or opportunities for schools in the coming year?
BK: I think the biggest thing that is interesting is that some of the challenges that had been unique to the city school districts are now starting to spread out into the suburbs. You're starting to see more schools on the watch list for the state; more schools under review; and more schools that could be in jeopardy of closure spreading out to other districts. People are seeing now that the state is changing the standards and the federal government is changing its standards, and more and more school districts are going to get caught up in that web.
Some of the models (for the school districts) are not the most practical in terms of application but the question is: With the president's re-election certainly not assured, will this all go by the wayside?
BLJ: What do you tell school districts when they are looking for direction and it appears so much of it is a gray area, in terms of what to expect?
BK: Not only is there so much uncertainty, but even with the current model there isn't much case law. So what happens if a school doesn't completely comply isn't always clear, either.