BOW — The professional reputation of a prominent appraiser of utility property for local government clients in New Hampshire — George E. Sansoucy — may hang on the outcome of an investigation before the state of Ohio Board of Tax Appeals.
Millions of dollars can be at stake, so court fights often become confrontational over the value of utility property between lawyers and experts for power companies and lawyers and experts for cities and towns.
But they almost never get as personal or protracted as this fight, which began last year over the property value of a 150-acre natural gas power plant in Kensington, an unincorporated town in southeastern Ohio.
This battle pitted the utility, Utica East Ohio Midstream LLC, against Sansoucy, who was the expert appraiser for the Board of Education for the United Local School District.
The utility has asked the tax appeals board to ban Sansoucy from representing anyone in the state of Ohio for at least five years and up to a lifetime, if that’s what the board were to decide.
Meanwhile, Sansoucy’s privately hired lawyer, Shawn Organ of Columbus, Ohio, said this over-the-top bid to sanction his client was a thinly veiled attempt to disqualify Sansoucy because he’s an effective thorn in the side of utility appraisers, who get paid big money to try to limit how much their employers pay in taxes.
“In short, Utica (and its attorneys) and Mr. Sansoucy are repeat adversaries in tax litigation. Utica (and its attorneys) stand to benefit from never seeing Mr. Sansoucy in Ohio again, or at least from having a record of mistakes he’s made (however inconsequential) with which to try to impeach him,” Organ wrote.
According to published reports, Utica initially maintained it should have had to pay $4 million in taxes to the school board; Sansoucy had testified it should pay $76 million. After his contested testimony the parties settled on about $12 million.
Lawyers for the utility said much of the increase was due to a property revaluation and not Sansoucy’s testimony.
The local school board that hired Sansoucy did not oppose the request to sanction him and it did not provide Sansoucy with lawyers to defend himself.
The Columbiana County Board of Revision and its county auditor also supported the utility’s motion to sanction Sansoucy.
During depositions in the proceeding, Sansoucy said he was paid at least $350,000 in fees for his work. The utility put Sansoucy on the stand for seven days of testimony.
Sansoucy has offices in Newington and in Lancaster; a staffer said he was “traveling outside the state” Friday. Sansoucy did not return telephone messages left at both locations, on Monday.
He’s represented more than 80 public government clients on utility property disputes in at least a dozen states since the mid-1990s.
Organ said mistakes his client made under cross-examination were not intentional. For example, Sansoucy said there were 56 piping systems in the project; it actually had about half that many. Organ said Sansoucy didn’t claim the piping systems added to the plant’s value, a statement that Utica’s lawyers reject.
“One glaring problem with drawing this inference is that it makes no sense for Mr. Sansoucy to have been lying about what equipment exists at the Kensington facility. They say, as though he were a villain in a gothic novel, that he ‘engaged in behavior most pernicious,’ and ‘demonstrated a perverse disdain for the process of the board,’” Organ wrote. “If these over-the-top accusations were not made behind the protective veil of a judicial proceeding, they would plainly be actionable as defamation.”
Sansoucy’s lawyer also noted the same utility, Utica East, sought sanctions against Sansoucy after another property value dispute in 2007. The Ohio tax board rejected it out of hand.
“This is not mere speculation. Parties are already using Utica’s allegations in this proceeding, regardless of their accuracy, to try to impeach Mr. Sansoucy in other proceedings, employing a ‘where there;s smoke there must be fire’ approach,” Organ wrote.
Meanwhile, the dispute will have continued relevance in New Hampshire in Merrimack County Superior Court on Tuesday.
Judge Richard McNamara presides over a motions hearing in the appeal of Eversource NH’s assessment done by Sansoucy for the town of Bow of the company’s former coal-fired Merrimack Station power plant and Garvins Falls hydroelectric project.
Eversource is seeking rebates on the more than $10 million it paid in taxes for 2014 through 2016.
In October 2016, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in favor of Eversource’s assessments for 2012 and 2013, rejecting the analysis Sansoucy had offered on the town’s behalf.
Wiliam Hinkle, Eversource’s communications director, said the utility was confident it would win in this case. “As one of the largest taxpayers in the state, we always pay our share in accordance with New Hampshire laws and regulations. On behalf of our customers who ultimately pay those costs, and as a regulated utility, we have a duty to ensure that the taxes we pay are fair and reasonable,” Hinkle said in a statement.
“The upcoming case at Merrimack County Superior Court is the continuation of a similar tax dispute from previous years when both the Superior Court and the Supreme Court affirmed our position. This case involves the same issues, and we expect a similar outcome.”
Lawyers for Bow tried to get McNamara to recuse himself this time; he had ruled against Sansoucy in the earlier matter.
“The town fears the judge’s decision will negatively impact this judge’s ability to impartially adjudicate the present matter, thereby creating a foreseeable prejudicial effect for the town,” McNamara said in denying the motion.
Trial lawyer and former Supreme Court justice Chuck Douglas got interested in the controversy as the publisher of the Bow Times and had been urging local boards to drop Sansoucy as its expert. “This can’t be a good thing for the town that our expert is lacking in credibility,” Douglas said. “Maybe he was well-regarded at some point, but not now.”
Ohio utility tax lawyer Tony Ehler, one of Utica’s lead attorneys, believes a board decision sanctioning Sansoucy would reverberate beyond Ohio.
“This would follow him everywhere,” Ehler said.