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Gone fishing

I will be on vacation through Aug. 3 and not posting to this blog.

One City Hall observer, upon hearing the news of my vacation, suggested that I "volunteer" my time to The News for at least eight hours a week, four on Tuesdays and another four on weekends. And yes, the suggestion came in the form of an e-mail. But not from Tanya Perrin-Johnson.

I don't want to leave you readers completely high and dry, however, so here's a couple of things you can do while I'm off.

First, take a look at the list of contributors to the Brown re-election campaign and post a comment or shoot me an e-mail with your observations. Help me connect the dots.

Here are the links:

Individual contributors reported Jan. 15

Corporate contributors reported Jan. 15

Individual contributors reported July 15

Corporate contributors reported July 15

Second, kick back and enjoy a summer-themed video. Gee, there are so many to choose from.

How about "Summertime Blues" from my favs, The Who?

"Boys of Summer" from Don Henley?

Or "In the Summertime" from Mongo Jerry? That one brings back warm memories.

Good stuff, to be sure, but not quite the theme I'm looking for.  Not given the past month.

Hey, I've got it. "(Hot Time) Summer in the City," by the Lovin' Spoonful.

Hit it, boys.

Prosecuting Golisano & Pigeon

Tom Golisano and Steve Pigeon have used Responsible New York to play political hard ball, pouring more than $4 million in campaigns last year in an effort that, according to who you believe, was aimed at (1) reforming the state Legislature or (2) increasing their political power.

Well, if the state government was their Evil Empire, the Empire has struck back.

The state Board of Elections had sat on three complaints filed last fall against Responsible New York. The allegation: Golisano and Co. coordinated their activity, including a media barrage, with their favored candidates. That's considered a no-no -- a felony no-no, in fact -- because the election law prohibits such collaboration by independent, unauthorized committees because they face no spending limits on their activities.

Matters began moving in May -- sort of -- when commissioners on the state Board of Elections discussed referring the complaints to Albany County District Attorney David Soares for criminal prosecution. At least one Democratic commissioner thought the board agreed to refer the complaints, and, in fact, investigators from the board and DA's office subsequently met.

But then the coup happened in early June, engineered in part by Tom Golisano and Steve Pigeon, and all of a sudden Republican commissioners insisted they had agreed to no such thing. Then came the counter-coup last week, and the Dems regained control of the Senate.

By this point, the love-in was over. The GOP joined the Democrats in feeling like lovers jilted by Golisano and Pigeon.

And you know what they say about a lover scorned. It gets worse when an elephant and a donkey are involved.

The Board of Elections met Wednesday, and, unlike the Senate, there was bipartisan agreement. Commissioners voted 4 to 0 to refer the complaints against Responsible New York to the Albany County DA.

As one source told us: "There's nobody left to protect these guys. Nobody trusts these guys. Everybody's out for them."

Ah, yes, payback can be a real, well, you know what.

Pigeon regards the vote as political retribution, and to some degree, he's right.

But there's another way to look at it.

For once, the Democrats and Republicans have stopped running the Board of Elections as a mutual protection racket. 

The complaints against Responsible New York have a chance to be weighed on their merits.

Imagine if the Republicans and Democrats began to do likewise with things like redistricting and legislation.

Brown, Casey and Davis: BERC no-shows

"Eighty percent of success is showing up," proclaimed Woody Allen.

Which may help explain why the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. is such a mess.

The agency's governing board includes two elected officials, Mayor Byron Brown, who serves as chairman, and Ellicott Common Council Member Brian Davis.

Davis hasn't shown up for a board meeting since last November, shortly after he bounced a rent check for the One Sunset restaurant.

The mayor hadn't been seen since December until he showed up for a hastily called meeting last week to discuss Brian Reilly's resignation as BERC president earlier that day.

Problem was, the meeting violated the state Open Meetings Law because the agency failed to notify the press and public. Apparently, the people's business was none of our business.

I got to looking at the minutes of board meetings posted at BERC's Web site and found that the private-sector members are pretty diligent about attending.

It was a different story for city officials.

Brown has made only eight of 20 meetings since January 2007. Keep in mind, he's the chairman.

Davis has made six of 13. He actually was showing up most of the time until the you-know-what started hitting the fan on One Sunset.

Deputy Mayor Steve Casey was a chronic no-show until he finally stepped down from the board late last year, making only four of 14 meetings. He blew off all eight board meetings in 2008 before stepping aside late in the year.

I'm not sure why Casey wasn't showing up; perhaps he had more pressing business, like gearing up for the mayor's re-election campaign. I trust Casey has a better attendance record at campaign strategy sessions than he did at BERC meetings.

I understand the mayor is a busy fellow. Maybe he can't make all the meetings, although I believe BERC sets its board schedule well in advance, so I'm not sure scheduling conflicts are a legitimate excuse.

But isn't it reasonable for the mayor -- the chairman of the board, for crying out out -- to be there more than he's not? Especially this May and June when the board considered measures to clean up the abuses The News revealed in our investigation of One Sunset.

The mayor would have us believe he is going to reform the agency. He might start by showing up.

It's worked for Woody.

Meanwhile, back in Albany ...

Let me take a brief break from One Sunset-email-health insurance-gate to revisit another favorite depressing topic.

State government.

After a lot of spin from the Golisano-Pigeon camp over the past week proclaiming that the month-long paralysis of the State Senate resulted in a win for upstate, Tom Precious sets the record straight:

Things are supposed to be different, if everyone from the likes of new Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada to Florida businessman and Buffalo Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano are to be believed. The “new” Senate is about empowering rank-and-file lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — to make it easier, for instance, to get bills to the floor.

The focus for this week’s session, however, is not unlike what Albany witnessed the previous six months: downstate-centric and with the usual Capitol secrecy surrounding what is on the agenda.

Asked Monday for the bills the Senate will be considering, a Senate Democratic spokesman could name only one: Legislation affecting an expired law that had the mayor in control of the New York City schools will be a “high priority” Wednesday.

Another hot-button issue being pushed by some senators: pro-tenant legislation affecting rent-control laws in New York City.

What’s not high on the priority list of the Senate Democratic leadership? Bills dealing with lowering property taxes, or cutting state mandates to help localities cut costs, or improving how industrial development agencies are run, or making technical changes many lawmakers say are needed to the Empire Zone program that gives tax breaks to companies.

Senator Antoine Thompson, in his own spin session last week, unwittingly drove home the point that WNY remains not in the back seat, but in the trunk, of the car driven by downstate interests when he proclaimed:

“In a leadership meeting of the Senate, we have two of the 18 in the room who are from Western New York,” Thompson said.

Um, Senator Thompson, having two of 18 seats at the table is nothing to boast about. It means the other 16 are from someplace else.

Thompson opened his mouth to insert his foot in another story about a big fund-raiser Senate leaders are holding here Friday. Sen. Pedro Espada won't be attending, but Thompson said not to worry, he's trying to get him here for an event in September.

What, Rod Blagojevich isn't available?

Of course, this all flows from the top. Consider the stunt pulled by Senate President Pro Tempore Malcolm Smith and Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson, as reported by the Albany Times Union.

Eleven of the State Senate's highest-paid staffers received raises of up to $32,000 when it appeared likely Democrats would lose control of the chamber during the five-week leadership fight. The combined increases will cost taxpayers $200,000 annually ...

One day after the coup, Senate Majority Deputy Secretaries Meredith Henderson and Patricia Rubens each received nearly $23,000 in raises. Both staffers received an additional raise on June 23, for a total of nearly $32,000 each, backdated to Jan. 1, 2009. Both staffers are paid $140,382.

Smith and Sampson, by the way, are the headliners for the aforementioned fund-raiser in Buffalo this weekend. It will be interesting to see who shows up and forks over.

Friends of "reform," no doubt.

BlackBerrys go bye-bye

Shortly after Byron Brown took office as mayor, 15 economic development agency employees were issued BlackBerrys. City Hall paid for them with block grant funds -- money that's supposed to be fighting blight and poverty.

Brian Reilly, the city's economic development chief, defended their use, saying they increased worker productivity. Problem was, many of the folks issued the nifty devices spent their days working in City Hall and thus had a phone and computer at their desks.And not everyone issued the devices really learned how to handle all its features.

In short, not the best use of $30,000, especially given its intended purpose.

The second floor of City Hall agreed.

Janet Penksa, Brown's budget chief, took one look at the BlackBerry use and balked. She recommended to the mayor, who in turn ordered Reilly to take back the devices for all but essential work that involved working outside the office. Nine of the 15 BlackBerrys were turned back in last week.

Reilly was among those who had to fork his over. Between that and the demotion, it was a rough week, I guess.

Noteworthy: This blog passed 500,000 page views over the weekend. Thanks to all you readers for your eyeballs.

City Hall Under Scrutiny

Eliot Ness has entered the building - City Hall, that is.

As I report in today's Buffalo News, the FBI, the State Police and the Erie County District Attorney have assorted floors of City Hall under scrutiny.

The State Police and the DA have zoned in on Brian Davis, the Councilman who has trouble paying his bills, disclosing his finances to the Board of Elections and telling the truth about where he went to college. Their investigation is focused on allegations that Davis is a serial bad check writer and the Councilman's repeated failure to file financial disclosure reports with the Board of Elections.

I give DA Frank Sedita credit for treading where his predecessor rarely did. Especially because Sedita last year enjoyed the backing of both Mayor Byron Brown, who counts on Davis' support in the Council, and Steve Pigeon, who is working behind the scenes on the mayor's re-election campaign.

Sedita is showing he is his own man. If he continues this streak of independence, he could wind up a white knight in helping to clean up this region's cesspool political culture.

Of course, he's working with a lot fewer prosecutors and investigators than DAs in comparable counties, which is one reason I suspect the State Police are involved in the Davis investigation. Wouldn't it be nice if the DA's office was given the money to staff a public integrity unit like his counterpart in New York City?

The feds, on the other hand, have no problems with resources, and I find the FBI's interest in the Brown administration to be especially intriguing.

Keep in mind who is part of the mix - the agency's Government Corruption Unit. 

Sounds kind of ominous, doesn't it?

I couldn't drag much out of Acting U.S. Attorney Kathleen Mehltretter other than, yeah, we're up to something, but the something involves the Government Corruption Unit, so you know they're not checking for parking meter violations.

Moreover, a source familiar with what the feds have been looking into suggests this could be serious business.

First, there's Davis and the One Sunset fiasco. No big surprise there.

There's also City Hall's continued mismanagement of block grant money. Again, no surprise. (I've got to say that when I read the HUD audit that apparently piqued the interest of investigators, the report  described a program that seemed ripe for corruption.)

I'm told the FBI also has fielded allegations that - let's see, how can I put this diplomatically? - some folks involved in Brown's re-election campaign have been doing some inappropriate things that go beyond the e-mails that Tanya Perrin-Johnson has been sending to the troops.

A few words of caution.

Just 'cause the authorities are sniffing around doesn't mean there's fire to be found underneath all the smoke. But there sure seems to be a lot of smoke.

Guilty (Reilly), and more guilty (Brown)

Mayor Byron Brown had it right when he said Brian Reilly had too much on his plate serving  both as commissioner of economic development, permits and inspections and as president of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp.

What the mayor failed to say, however, is that it was Brown who loaded Reilly's plate like a starving man on a buffet line.

In other words, Brown, in forcing Reilly to step down as BERC president, is cleaning up his own mess.

Brown hired Reilly a year ago February as the city's chief economic development official. The mayor then gave Richard Tobe the boot and put Reilly in charge of the permit and inspections department that Tobe had headed. Meanwhile, the mayor failed to fill a budgeted position to oversee green issues and dumped that work in Reilly's lap, as well. All the while, Reilly headed up BERC.

Not that this made Reilly immune from doing political homework assigned by Deputy Mayor Steve Casey. In whatever spare time Reilly might have otherwise had last summer, he was spotted carrying petitions for candidates favored by the mayor.

But before you start feeling sorry for Reilly, keep in mind that he didn't help himself.

The decision to change BERC's insurance options in a way that allowed him to put the woman he lives with on his health insurance policy may or may not have involved skulduggery, but it certainly displayed poor judgment.

Ditto for his defense of Michelle Barron in the wake of the One Sunset restaurant fiasco.

Double-ditto for his MO of not returning calls to a wide range of people and snarling at many of them when he did pick up the phone. He turned off a lot of people in the development community pretty quickly, people in both corporate suites and grass-roots organizations.

But Reilly has not played a central role in most of the controversies to beset the city's economic development efforts since he arrived on the scene.

There's the decision, subject to likely rejection by the Common Council, to select a team headed by former Council President James Pitts to develop a waterfront hotel. It was Brown, not Reilly, who ramrodded that decision through the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.

There's the money and manpower lent by BERC to help Leonard Stokes run One Sunset into the ground within a year of opening. Most of the damage was done by the time Reilly was hired.

P.S.:  the guy Stokes met with at City Hall to help make things happen was named Brown, not Reilly.

It was Brown, not Reilly, who carried on about the supposed $4.5 billion in economic development activity that turned out to be a lot of smoke and mirrors.

There's the blind eye the administration has turned to sustainable economic development or just about anything else having to do with green.

And, of course, there's the ongoing ... and ongoing ... and ongoing squandering of federal block grant funds and accompanying critical audits by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Jimmy Griffin got the ball rolling, plowing money into the salaries of bureaucrats and loans to dubious development deals. Tony Masiello did likewise. And not much has changed under Brown,

If anything, things have perhaps gotten worse, considering the most recent HUD audit released this spring found no fewer than 19 serious deficiencies. And when the Common Council wanted documents to help get to the bottom of things, it had to resort to filing Freedom of Information requests that the administration took its sweet time in responding to -- and not completely, at that.

Is any of this Brian Reilly's fault?

Nope. The buck stops at the mayor's desk.

In short, shed no tears for Brian Reilly. He's still got $91,162 in salary to keep him warm -- and to help his girlfriend buy health insurance.

At the same time, remember who is really calling the shots, who ultimately is responsible for this mess. It's the guy, two months away from a primary, who all of a sudden is preaching "change and reform."

A know nothing theme at City Hall

On May 26, in the wake of a Buffalo News investigation into the city's role in the failed One Sunset restaurant, we reported on Mayor Byron Brown's response.

Two weeks ago, BERC President Brian Reilly informed Brown he was launching an internal review of the agency to assess its handling of One Sunset. Would the inside probe have been launched even if The Buffalo News hadn't been seeking documents and other information? Brown said he didn't know the answer to that question.

On Monday, reacting to my story about one of his commissioners e-mailing her employees about working on the mayor's re-election campaign, Brown said:

“I did not know the e-mails went out when they did.” 

In today's paper, we report on the mayor's reaction to my story about changes in health insurance options at the city's major economic development agency made late last year that allowed its president to obtain health insurance for his live-in girlfriend:

 Brown said neither he nor other members of BERC's board were aware of the changes in insurance coverage until recently.

Anyone see a pattern here?

A poverty of principles at City Hall

In the grand scheme of things, a $9,099 health insurance policy isn't a huge deal.

Then again, neither is $30,000 for BlackBerrys.

Not when you're talking about an annual budget of more than $5 million, which is the operating budget of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp.

But when that budget is supposed to be targeted to combat poverty and promote economic development in the nation's third-poorest city, well, $30,000 here and $9,099 there speak volumes.

And what it says is that bureaucrats get first dibs on money earmarked to deal with poverty.

You poor folks, well, step to the back of the bus.

It's all on display, has been for years.

For three decades, the city has been squandering its block grant funding. HUD finding after HUD finding has concluded the city is spending too much on city salaries and risky loans.

The investigation Pat Lakamp and I did in May found that Brian Davis shifted $30,000 in block grant away from his Ellicott District to help fund One Sunset, just a couple of doors down from Hutch's, about the swankiest restaurant on Gates Circle.

And now, as I report in today's News, BERC expanded its health insurance options last December in ways that enabled BERC President Brian Reilly to opt out of his single plan that cost the city $3,730 in favor of brand-spanking new policy that is costing the agency $9,099.

Hey, it's only money.

Poor people's money, at that.

Common Council President David Franczyk raises a good question: Why did the BERC bureaucracy, headed by Reilly, make the decision to expand coverage knowing that the guy in charge stood to benefit. Shouldn't that have fallen to BERC's governing board?

"For his own protection, you think he'd want to bring it to the board," Franczyk said.

It makes sense, doesn't it, that if you stand to benefit from a decision, you either recuse yourself or give your superiors a say - or at least a heads up. Reilly didn't do that. Instead, he signed the contract with the health insurance company, then got his girlfriend coverage.

It's all so City Hall.

As I've nosed around the agency the past several months I've learned that the bureaucracy often keeps the board in the dark. The decision to alter health insurance options in a way that benefits the guy is par for the culture. Been going on well before Reilly got there.

Moreover, I've learned that Reilly likes to play things close to the vest. Suffice to say, he's tough to reach on the phone.Take yesterday, for example.

I placed numerous calls and e-mails to his office, explaining that I needed to talk to him about his health insurance. Did likewise with his attorney.

What I got back, to quote Simon and Garfunkel, was the sound of silence.

City Finance Commissioner Janet Penska, to her credit, finally got the lawyer to come down to her office late in the day to answer some questions.

Reilly, I'm still waiting to hear from. Usually, Peter Cutler, the mayor's press secretary, can get him to return a call, even if it's days or even weeks later. Not yesterday.

Better to sulk than speak, I guess.

OK, so he blows off reporters. Not that big of a deal, really. I mean, his boss, the mayor, does it all the time.

But I'm far from the only one to get the silent treatment from Reilly, and some of the people he's given the cold shoulder to have come bearing a precious commodity - investment in the city.

In the past couple of months I've fielded phone calls from a prominent developer, a state official and someone heading up a non-profit, all of whom were all looking to invest money in the city. I'm not talking chump change - among the three of them, they were involved in projects with the potential to bring upwards of $100 million into the city. All three are credible people involved with credible organizations. Very.

All three had the same experience. They called Reilly and he failed to return their phone calls.

Several tried him more than once. One guy eventually got through, only to be snarled at. The other finally called me asking who else he could call in City Hall. The third fellow finally got through, only to feel he got stiffed in the end.

Such is the state of economic development efforts in the city. That, and One Sunset.

e-mail shenanigans fire up Kearns

Folks have been grousing about Mickey Kearns' lackluster, at best, mayoral campaign, but on Monday the South Buffalo councilman took off the gloves about the Brown administration leaning on City Hall employees to work on Byron Brown's re-election campaign.

Reports Bob McCarthy:

In his first real criticism of Brown in his so far quiet campaign, Kearns said the mayor has presided over "one of the most corrupt" administrations in recent memory.

"It's time to sweep the corruption out of City Hall and start with a new administration," he said.

Them's fightin' words.

Kearns wants the state Civil Service Commission and city Ethics Commission to investigate.

Good luck. With all the shenanigans of the past few months -- block grant irregularities, Brian Davis, One Sunset,  now the e-mails -- we've yet to see an Eliot Ness type knocking on doors. Heck, I'd settle for Joe Friday at this point.

Brown, for his part, said he didn't know about the e-mails.

"These employees should not have been instructed to do any campaign volunteering during work hours. That is not how we do business and I do not support that. Campaigning is not in their job description, it is strictly voluntary."

If that's the case, Mr. Mayor, I have two questions:

-- Why was Dana Bobincheck, one of your top aides, copied on the e-mails?

-- Are you going to discipline Bobinchek or Tanya Perrin-Johnson, the commissioner who sent the e-mails, or will she they be held harmless, as has Michelle Barron for her role in the One Sunset restaurant fiasco?

Kearns has a decidedly uphill fight ahead of him, one that he's made steeper by waiting so long to kick his campaign into gear, if, in fact, his press conference Monday on the steps of City Hall represents the launch of a campaign.

Brown has a boatload of money and, as my story yesterday pointed out, has the benefit of drawing on the city work force for campaign workers. And with Steve Pigeon in the mix, Brown can count on Tom Golisano's Responsible New York to kick in money if need be.

In short, Brown enjoys the power of incumbency.

Kearns, meanwhile, is an unknown quantity to a lot of city voters. I can't offer any insights at this juncture, as I've only had a handful of dealings with him.



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