Erie County Water Authority blows a gasket

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

It’s been awhile since I saw a bunch of government types become as unhinged as the gang at the Erie County Water Authority.

Dan Telvock reported on Nov. 7 that the authority cut corners in its program to test the drinking water it supplies to some 550,000 customers in Western New York, primarily those in Buffalo’s immediate suburbs.

In a nutshell, the authority didn’t always heed a federal requirement that they test water in the houses deemed most at risk because of the presence of a lead service line or lead solder in interior plumbing, and used the houses of their current and former employees to conduct about one-third of the tests.

In addition, Telvock spoke with more than a dozen homeowners who participated in the 2014 testing program. One told him she was instructed to flush the water before testing, which is a no-no because it can reduce lead content. Another said her husband, who works for the water authority, sampled from a basement bar sink that is rarely used, another no-no. A third said he wondered why the authority randomly asked for his participation because he did not have a lead service line or lead solder in his interior plumbing.

Not exactly best practice, shall we say. Or so the experts told us.

The authority’s response was to throw a hissy fit.

There were Twitter posts. Advertisements placed on Facebook. And an email sent to customers that linked to what I would diplomatically term a piece of propaganda on the authority’s website.

Much of the website post was a lot of blah blah blah. The rest amounted to a disingenuous effort by the authority to snow its customers.

Some of the authority’s claims were unsubstantiated, like its contention that it provides some of the safest tap water in the region. Trouble is, the authority has refused to release the 2016 test results to Investigative Post, and four previous rounds of testing we reviewed showed their program was flawed.

The authority repeated claims that by adding anti-corrosion treatment to drinking water “pipes are safely coated” and leaching of lead is “eliminated.”

But national experts counter that there is no treatment that eliminates the leaching of  lead into tap water. In fact, the authority’s test results that we reviewed actually prove that lead does leach into the tap water of some homes.

In addition, the authority said employee participation “ensures the integrity of the ECWA testing program and helps assure your water is safe to drink.”

National experts told us testing water from the homes of current and former employees poses a conflict of interest, and, moreover, it’s hard to believe these homes are the most at risk in all of the suburbs it serves.

“They’re trying to defend the indefensible,” Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech University who played a critical role in uncovering the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mi., last year, told Telvock in a podcast interview.

All this was done in an effort to assure customers that all is fine with the water the authority supplies them. Of course, Telvock in his original story, stated there isn’t necessarily a problem with the water.

Let me quote the story:

Investigative Post’s findings do not mean that the tap water customers drink in Erie County is contaminated with unsafe amounts of lead. But they do raise questions about the accuracy of the program and the water authority’s assertion that lead is not leaching from the aging infrastructure that delivers water to homes and businesses in suburbs across Erie County.

The authority’s response let’s call it what it is, a disinformation campaign was paid for by their rate payers.

Facebook ads aren’t free. And it took someone’s time to write the tweets and compose the content for the website, including videos quoting three authority officials, who we were previously told were reluctant to grant us an interview for television because they are “a little gun shy of getting in front of the camera.”

There is a bigger expense, the $60,000 the authority pays Zeppelin Communications as its public relations firm. The firm is co-owned by Michael Caputo, who heads its Buffalo office and personally handles much of the authority’s interaction with reporters, including requests made under the state Freedom of Information Law.

Caputo is also a player in local right wing political circles. He was Carl “I’ll Take You Out” Paladino’s campaign manager when he ran for governor in 2010. He was part of the Donald “The Press is Scum” Trump media operation until he resigned in June after posting a provocative tweet that upset some in The Donald’s camp. He can frequently be heard as a talk show host on WBEN, local home of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the like.

You get the picture.

There’s one more thing you should know about Caputo. He has a history of not paying his taxes.

The New York Times reported in 2010 that the federal government filed a tax lien against him for $52,788 in 2008, which was subsequently satisfied.

Research by Investigative Post shows the federal government then filed a lien against him in December 2010, and two more in 2012, that total $137,464. The state filed tax warrants in 2013 and 2015 worth $29,103.

Grand total: $166,567.

Public records show the state warrants were satisfied in March of this year, the federal liens in September. How much Caputo ended up paying was not disclosed on the public records I reviewed.

Telvock last week asked Caputo for an on-camera interview to discuss the authority’s PR campaign and his tax troubles. Caputo responded with an email that said: “I’m not going to sit for an interview with you. I do not have tax delinquency problems – you’ll need to do better reporting.”

Telvock and I have since given Caputo numerous opportunities to discuss the authority’s campaign and his history of tax delinquency. Caputo has refused on-the-record interviews and he got nasty in a phone call he placed to me last week after I told him I thought his repeated failure to pay his taxes was newsworthy because his firm is being paid with public funds and was hired when all these liens were active. Did the authority know, and if it did, what was its  reason for overlooking the unpaid taxes?

Caputo didn’t like my response, so he started in on the insults and threats. His surliness with reporters and attempts to intimidate them is nothing new, as any number of reporters around town can attest to.

Here’s one example:

A downstate newspaper published the names and addresses of local residents holding gun permits in late 2012. The Buffalo News subsequently requested gun permit data from the Erie County Clerk. Caputo, in January 2013, responded with a Twitter post that threatened to publish the names and addresses of all Buffalo News reporters on his website if the paper “runs a story revealing even one Erie County gun owner.”

This is the guy the water authority hires as its press liaison. What were they thinking?

Oh, that’s right, they’re not talking.

Fast forward to last Thursday. Telvock, rebuffed in his effort to get an on-camera interview, went to the authority’s board meeting in an effort to pose some questions. Judging by the authority’s response to his presence, you would have thought he was Attila the Hun.

Upon adjournment, board members scurried into a side room, slamming a door on Telvock when he tried to enter the room. Sean Dwyer, one of Caputo’s employees, then demanded that Telvock leave the public meeting room.

Here, see for yourself.

All this because a reporter wanted to ask questions of public officials.

The hyperventilating didn’t end there. Caputo then sent out a vicious tweet targeting Telvock, which would be shocking until you spend time reading his Twitter feed, which is replete with incendiary comments.

Then, Joseph Burns, the authority’s $132,756 a year secretary, fired off a letter that afternoon to Jim Toellner, president of WGRZ, with whom we have a partnership. Burns’ characterization of what transpired is how do I put this diplomatically? at odds with the video evidence. Burns concluded his letter by declaring:

“Due to WGRZ’s continued violation of our media policy, we will no longer be making ECWA representatives available for on-camera interviews. All further correspondence will be done in writing through our public relations firm.”

The water might be transparent at the authority, but the agency itself isn’t. It’s also evident the authority could use some adult supervision.

In the meantime, so long as it can’t be trusted with the truth, I don’t think it should be trusted with our drinking water, either.