Aug 6


Comptrollers behaving badly, Part 2

Erie County's Stefan Mychajliw sounded the anti-immigrant dog whistle, and people hated it

On June 21, Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw issued an invitation to Department of Motor Vehicles employees across the state: If you disagree with the new “Green Light” law, under which New York State will soon issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, and you suspect such a person is applying for a license, call or email the Erie County Comptroller’s Whistleblower Hotline. Mychajliw promised he would forward anonymous tips gathered therein to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

Two weeks earlier, at the request of Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns, Mychajliw issued a report “regarding the consequences of granting licenses to illegal aliens.”

Go ahead and read it here: It is refreshingly free of the numbers and references to studies or laws that often clutter a municipal comptroller’s work product. Spoiler alert: Mychajliw thinks it’s a bad idea.

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Kearns has drawn national attention to himself by stating he will not enforce the Green Light law and filing a lawsuit seeking to overturn it. On June 20, Kearns was interviewed on Fox News about his stance.

Mychajliw’s report did not earn him the same notoriety. Maybe the timing was a coincidence, or maybe Mychajliw was jealous of Kearns’s appearance on Fox and decided to up the ante the very next day by promising to sic the feds on unsuspecting people trying to obey state law by getting licensed to drive, based on anonymous tips.

Whatever Mychajliw’s motivation, his dog whistle certainly attracted some attention. But maybe not the kind he hoped for.

Investigative Post requested a log of calls and emails to the Erie County Comptroller’s Whistleblower Hotline between May 1 and June 28. Between May 1 and June 20, there were just 16 engagements: nine phone calls, six emails, one walk-in. None, of course, appear to have had anything to do with undocumented immigrants.

Associate Deputy Comptroller Bryan Fiume called the volume of calls and emails “a fairly accurate depiction of regular traffic,” apart from occasional spikes of activity generated by news reports. A review of the hotline’s logs from 2009 showed similar traffic over a couple six-week periods: 12 engagements in January and February, 20 engagements between mid-July and early September. When it was launched in July 2008 by Mark Poloncarz, the traffic was much heavier: 68 engagements in the first six weeks. That’s likely because it was new.

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Mychajliw’s announcement generated even more traffic than that: 71 engagements in one week — 63 phone calls, six emails, and two walk-ins.

But 51 of the 71 people who left messages (including one of the walk-ins, a county employee) expressed outrage at Mychajliw’s “misuse of country resources” to “advance his political agenda,” calling it “immoral,” a “dereliction,” “disgusting,” and a number of other choice adjectives.

One caller called Mychajliw “a moron,” prompting the staffer who logged the call to write, “Seemed scripted, similar to previous call.”

You can scroll through them all below or read the log here:

Erie County Comptroller Whistleblower Log (Text)

Just two people expressed approval of Mychajliw’s actions. Two others actually reported suspected undocumented immigrants. One of these reported seeing a “Brown family…having lunch like they weren’t criminals.” The other seemed to take issue with a woman in a hijab making his or her sandwich: “Not in my EC. This is unacceptable, you’ve got to get on this. Make Erie County great again.”

Of course, the point likely never was to gather anonymous tips and get license-seeking immigrants detained and deported. If Mychajliw really wanted to achieve that, he’d have waited to issue his invitation until the law actually went into effect. You know, when state and county employees might actually encounter undocumented immigrants applying for driver’s licenses.

In January.

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But the policy is never the point for Mychajliw. For him, the point is always the headline, the TV news story, the stir on social media, the approval of what he imagines to be his base.

Thank god Mychajliw didn’t wait until the law is in effect. Hopefully his publicity stunt will have been forgotten by that time. It’s easy to imagine, given last weekend’s shootings in Dayton and El Paso, the tragedies that might result from such an irresponsible action: false accusations, erroneous detentions and deportations, violence. And who would be liable? The taxpayers and voters of Erie County, among others. Because he’s our county comptroller.

News and analysis by Geoff Kelly, Investigative Post's political reporter