High pricetag of City Hall politics

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Joel Giambra’s relationship with Jim Spano when I got through reading the profile of Adam Perry and his law firm’s dealings with Bryon Brown’s administration in Sunday’s Buffalo News.

Spano, if you recall, was Giambra’s chief campaign fund-raiser when the Democrat turned Republican ran successfully for county executive in 2000. Once in office, Giambra’s administration rewarded Spano’s firm with 85 percent of the county’s office furniture business, worth $2.5 million. Spano’s company, not content with the lion’s share of business, overbilled the county by an estimated $550,000 according to an investigation I did for The News. Spano’s firm eventually agreed to repay $225,000 and the episode became the first chink in the armor of the man who came to be known as King Joel.

We now have another case of a politician effectively taking care of an ally on the public’s dime. This time it involves legal services. Nearly four million dollars of legal services.

City Hall has its own legal department and farms out specialized work. The city spread around work to outside firms under Mayor Tony Masiello.

Enter Byron Brown in 2006.

I’ll have Dan Herbeck, who wrote Sunday’s piece for The News, explain what happened:

… the firm’s business with the city of Buffalo has gone through the roof since Brown became mayor.

During former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello’s last two years in office, the firm’s fees from the city were just under $147,000.

During Brown’s first two years, the firm earned about $880,000, quickly becoming the city’s favored law firm. City government records show Hodgson Russ has earned $3.16 million in city legal fees since 2006 – more than was received from the next three highest-paid firms hired by the city combined.

In addition, the city housing authority, controlled by appointees of the mayor, has paid Hodgson Russ $776,437 for legal work during Brown’s administration. The federal government picked up the tab for some of those payments. The next four highest-paid firms got a total of $538,108.

Since Brown took over as mayor, costs for the city corporation counsel’s office have risen by nearly half — from $2.05 million in the final year of Masiello’s administration to the $3.2 million budgeted for this year. Those figures, from city records, include payments to Hodgson Russ and other firms.

Your tax dollars at work, folks.

But the largess involving Hodgson Russ doesn’t end there.

For example, Perry’s official bio lists him as general legal counsel to Community Action Organization of Erie County, which historically has been a landing spot for many members of Grassroots, the political club closely aligned with the mayor. You might recall the COA’s former president, a Grassroots stalwart and one-time Common Council member. His name is Brian Davis. He’s been in the news a bit.

So why is Perry and his firm getting so much of the city’s business?

“People hire us because we’re really good at what we do,”said Hodgson Russ Chairman Dan Oliverio.

Of course.

And, to be fair, Hodgson Russ is one of the city’s largest law firms with an impressive stable of government clients.

But there’s a lot more to it than the firm’s competency.

For starters, there’s campaign contributions.

Hodgson Russ has given Brown’s two campaign committees $12,100 since he first ran for the job. Perry, individually, has given another $6,925.

Perry has also anted up $9,347 for 10 candidates and committees aligned with Brown, starting with then State Sen. Antoine Thompson ($2,525) and North Common Council Member Joe Golombek ($2,000) when he ran against Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, Brown’s arch-rival. Perry also donated $500 to Grassroots.

Then there’s the political role Perry performs for the mayor:

  • When Brown wanted to appoint Karla Thomas – yes, THE Karla Thomas – as human resources commissioner in 2008, he appointed Perry as chairman of the “citizen” committee designated in the City Charter to recommend a job candidate. In a subsequent investigation I determined Perry’s panel circumvented rules intended to depoliticize the hiring process. The job went to Thomas, chairwoman of Grassroots at the time, and she did such a poor job that Brown eventually fired her.
  • Two years ago, when Erie County Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams – an ally of Brown and County Executive Chris Collins –  went shopping for a redistricting chairman, Perry got the job. The resulting plan protected the seats of the legislature’s majority that consisted of Republicans loyal to Collins and Democrats aligned with Brown. District boundaries were derided as a byproduct of “Perrymandering” and the plan was ultimately rejected.
  • Perry is president of Mayor Brown’s Fund to Advance Buffalo, a non-profit corporation the mayor uses to dole out grants to city organizations such as the Police Athletic League. The non-profit’s latest filing with the IRS lists Deputy Mayor Steve Casey as vice president; the balance of the board was comprised of Brown political functionaries.

There’s more – including appointment by Brown as chairman of the Citizens Planning Council , which recommends the city’s capital spending – but you get the picture.

None of this is to suggest that there’s any legal hanky panky going akin to Giambra and Spano. Rather, this is an example of business as usual – albeit over the top – in local politics.

You don’t have to look far for other examples, such as when Collins replaced legal counsel at the Erie County Industrial Development Agency with a Republican friendly firm. We may very well see another changing of the guard once Mark Poloncarcz, the new county executive, gains control of the ECIDA.

In other words, to the victor goes the spoils. Paid for by taxpayers, of course.