Demone Smith’s continued defiance

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

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are among those who have gone on record in favor of tougher enforcement of election laws and other statutes aimed at promoting ethical conduct on the part of public officials.

The catalyst to these calls has been two recent high-profile corruption cases that snared New York City politicians. Not that we needed two indictments to know something is rotten in the Empire State. Look no further than the “D” grade the state received on a risk for public corruption report card issued by the Center for Public Integrity.

Nor do we need to look downstate for examples of lawlessness on the part of public officials. Which brings me to the story I did that aired Thursday on WGRZ on the continued failure of Common Council Majority Leader Demone Smith to pay $4,050 in civil penalties for the late filing of seven campaign finance disclosure reports by two committees he controls.

In a sense, this is old news. Reporters have been writing about Smith’s chronic violation of state election laws since shortly after he first ran for public office.

Matt Spina, my former colleague at The Buffalo News, first detailed Smith’s transgressions while serving on the Erie County Legislature.

I followed up with a piece a couple of years ago for The News, reporting on Smith’s failure to file timely reports once he moved to the Council.

Then, nearly a year ago, I updated the situation for WGRZ after the state Board of Elections filed judgments for additional civil penalties. (See video below.)

At that time, Smith said he was in the process of taking care of the penalties. As it turns out, he wasn’t.

Surprised, I am not.

Some of the penalties date back nearly five years. Smith apparently isn’t going to pay them until someone makes him. The Board of Elections filed the judgments in Albany and that’s where things stand. Stalled.

It’s not unusual for politicians to fail to file disclosure reports on time, although most follow the law. What is different is Smith’s refusal to pay up once he has been called out in public – once, twice, now three times.

By doing so, he runs the risk of making himself a poster child for tougher enforcement of election laws.

It’s true that failing to pay $4,050 in longstanding penalties isn’t a high crime – in fact, it’s no crime at all, but rather a violation of civil statutes. But it does convey a disrespect for the law from a public official who is charged with making and upholding the law.

In Smith’s case, it’s also par for the course.

Smith, before he ran for public office, failed to file state income tax returns in 2000 and 2001. State tax officials took legal action to recover an undisclosed amount of unpaid taxes.

And Smith, along with Mayor Byron Brown and Deputy Mayor Steve Casey, is being sued in federal court by a Cleveland developer who contends they were part of a pay-to-play scheme involving a proposed housing project on the city’s East Side.

Nevertheless, Council President Richard Fontana sang Smith’s praises when I questioned his fitness to hold a leadership position on the Council. Not that I expected a different answer:

Fontana, after all, holds his title thanks to a deal he cut a couple of years ago with Smith and other members of the Council faction aligned with Mayor Brown. I can’t believe Fontana is happy about Smith’s conduct when it comes to the Board of Elections, but attempting to hold him accountable could cost Fontana his title.

The mayor has been silent on Smith’s troubles, as he was when Brian Davis landed in hot water that eventually landed him in prison on corruption charges. Among his sins: a chronic failure to file campaign disclosure reports in a timely fashion, although that’s not what landed him in the slammer.

For more, see the video below of my complete, unedited interview with Smith on Tuesday.