Mayor Byron Brown has said that he doesn’t want controversial developer Carl Paladino’s support for his write-in campaign against Democratic primary winner India Walton.
While fielding questions from reporters following his June 28 announcement that he would stage a write-in campaign, Brown encouraged reporters to research the subject because they would find that he and Paladino “are not close.”
In fact, the two have fashioned a working, if not warm, relationship over the years.
Paladino is close enough to the mayor that he confirmed to a WGRZ reporter that he spoke with Brown by telephone shortly after his primary defeat and encouraged him to stay in the race. In the following days Paladino urged Buffalo business leaders to support Brown, crediting the mayor with running a “good government.”
“He runs a straight show and deserves another term,” Paladino said in a post-primary interview with the Buffalo News.
There are numerous examples of Brown and Paladino benefitting each other.
Brown has supported many Paladino development projects, giving them preferential treatment at times.
The mayor has accepted campaign donations from Carl Paladino, his son, William, and their company, Ellicott Development, and has held fundraisers at 500 Pearl Street, one of Paladino’s properties.
And Brown brought one of Paladino’s close associates, Kevin Helfer, into his inner-circle.
Paladino has gone silent in his support of Brown the past two months at the behest of friends and political strategists. That came after business leaders expressed unease at supporting the mayor’s write-in campaign because of Paladino’s history. But Paladino has long been on record as praising Brown and advocating for his continuation in office.
“He’s come a long way,” Paladino said during a 2017 interview with The Buffalo News. “I’ve come to respect him. He’s gotten rid of some onerous people around him and has gotten some competent people. They are good public servants. They are more business-friendly. They are running a good government.
“We are supporting him,” Paladino added. “We will continue to help him get elected.”
Neither Paladino nor the Brown campaign would speak to Investigative Post for this story.
Throughout Brown’s tenure, there have been several occasions where the Brown administration helped the Paladinos secure tax breaks, obtain city property for projects or overcome zoning or planning obstacles that were stalling developments.
The list of examples includes:
- Empire Zone benefits for Waterfront Place. In 2006, the Common Council, at the recommendation of the Brown administration, amended the boundaries of the city’s Empire Zone to include “Waterfront Place,” a Paladino condominium project located at Erie Basin Marina.
The move helped Paladino and his company save roughly $875,000 in sales tax on building materials. It also allowed owners of the 53 condos and adjacent townhouses to enjoy property tax breaks, which totaled $5.3 million over 10 years.
Brown’s then city planning director Tim Wanamaker defended the tax breaks as “a way to get these projects off the ground.”
- Development rights elsewhere in Erie Basin Marina.
In 2012, Paladino lost out to the Pegulas for the rights to develop the Webster Block next to the downtown hockey arena. As consolation prize, the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, where Brown serves as chairman, sold choice property in Erie Basin Marina to Paladino without considering offers from other developers.
Paladino had plans to develop “The Carlo,” a $75 million project featuring offices, a hotel, restaurants, apartments and a spa. Brown made the project — and his role in encouraging Paladino to transfer it to the Erie Basin Marina property — a centerpiece of his 2013 state of the city address.
“We are fast-tracking economic development in the city of Buffalo,” Brown said. “This is our time in Buffalo, and we’re going to capitalize on the time we’re in right now.”
The project has since stalled.
- Tax breaks for the Graystone Building. Also in 2012, as part of a $5.3 million plan to renovate the Graystone Building on Johnson Park, Brown supported Paladino’s bid for $213,000 in sales and mortgage tax breaks from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.
“The project, if it doesn’t get all these benefits, probably will not go forward,” Brown said.
The ECIDA approved the tax breaks to convert the building into an apartment complex, although two board members — Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant — voted against the benefits package after Paladino’s representatives refused to set aside apartments for low-income residents.
Approval of the subsidies followed years in which the building suffered from neglect resulting in major code violations, including a bad roof and missing windows.
- No defense for drive-through lawsuit. In 2018, Ellicott Development filed a lawsuit after the city’s Zoning Board denied its request for a variance to allow a drive-through at a mixed-use building anchored by a Tim Hortons at the corner of Michigan Avenue and William Street.
The zoning board eventually reversed course and granted the variance, but only after the city’s legal department failed to mount a formal defense against Ellicott’s legal claim.
- Selling city streets for redevelopment. In 2015, the Common Council, at the recommendation of Brown’s Office of Strategic Planning, sold 5277 Group, LLC — an affiliate of Ellicott Development — a pair of city streets and a storage building near the company’s “Fairmont” building overlooking the Niagara Thruway.
The sale price, $633,000, included the one-block stretches of East and West Market streets and a building located at 190 Perry St. The city sold the properties at prices recommended by Ellicott Development’s appraiser.
- Children’s Hospital redevelopment. The city is currently defending itself against a lawsuit filed last year by a group of Elmwood Village residents who are challenging the approval process for Elmwood Crossing, a $100 million redevelopment plan for the former Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo campus on the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Bryant Street.
Ten neighbors sued the city and the project partners — Ellicott Development and Sinatra and Co. Real Estate — claiming that procedures filed by the city’s Planning Board and Common Council were flawed and that the site’s planned unit development violated the city’s comprehensive plan and Green Code.
In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that the approved project plan is “so inconsistent” with the city’s comprehensive plan that it violates general city law while suggesting that the PUD was “adopted for the convenience” of the developer.
- Preferred developer selection. Last fall, the Brown administration named Ellicott Development as the “preferred developer” of a city lot located at the southeast corner of Main and Best streets. The quarter-acre lot was owned by the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, where Brown serves as chairman. The property, assessed at $151,000, is near two other parcels — 1125 Main and 1091 Main — that Ellicott is planning to redevelop.
Paladino has been sharply critical of Brown at times in the past. He helped the failed mayoral campaigns of Helfer in 2005 and Mickey Kearns in 2009. Brown easily beat back both challengers.
While the Paladinos contributed far more to Helfer and Kearns than they have to Brown, records on file with the state Board of Elections show they have donated $7,634 to the mayor’s past campaigns.
Carl Paladino gave $100 to the Brown for Buffalo campaign committee in 2013. Two companies affiliated with Paladino donated $5,034 to Brown in 2017 — $2,000 from the 5277 Group and $3,034 from the Pearl Group.
Records show William Paladino gave Brown’s committee $500 in 2013 and $2,000 in 2017.
In addition to donations, records show the Brown campaign used 500 Pearl Street, owned by Ellicott Development, for two fundraisers in 2019. The campaign paid Paladino’s company $11,500 for the two events.
From foe to inner circle
Helfer, the city’s parking commissioner, has long enjoyed Paladino’s sponsorship. It predates Helfer’s run for mayor in 2005 as a Republican against Brown.
Paladino described Helfer as “my kind of guy” in a 2005 story in The Buffalo News, which went on to say:
“Paladino is everywhere in Helfer’s world. A Paladino building serves as headquarters. Niagara Thruway motorists encounter a giant “Helfer for Mayor“ banner plastered across another Paladino building. And Helfer is employed at approximately $80,000 per year by Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, the entity controlling downtown parking over which Paladino has long wielded influence.”
Helfer’s campaign was heavily underwritten by Paladino. Paladino and his companies donated $37,500 and raised an additional $27,000 from family members and business associates.
In 2010, Brown appointed Helfer as city parking commissioner. He came to the job after working for six years as executive director for Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps. Helfer over time has donated $7,235 to the mayor’s campaign committees.
Helfer’s authority outstripped his title soon after joining the Brown administration.
In a 2017 interview with WGRZ’s Scott Levin, Paladino described Helfer as Brown’s “second,” in charge of “the day-to-day operations of the city.”
“I think Byron had some bad people around him for a long time. They’re gone. They’re out of the picture,” Paladino told Levin. “I saw that Byron appointed Kevin Helfer to be his second, and you can’t find a better, higher-quality person to run the day-to-day operations of the city than Kevin Helfer.”
By title, Helfer is not Brown’s second-in-command. That’s Deputy Mayor Betsey Ball. But City Hall sources tell Investigative Post he might as well be.
“[Helfer] is in every meeting — police, fire, budget, HR,” one source told Investigative Post. “His hands are literally in everything. So in a sense Carl was right.”
Helfer did not respond to requests for comment from Investigative Post.
Response to offensive behavior
It’s not hard to understand why Brown — a Democrat and the city’s first African-American mayor — would attempt to distance himself from Paladino, a Republican and staunch Donald Trump supporter who has a long history of offensive conduct and engaging in battles with Buffalo’s Black establishment.
In 2010, then Republican gubernatorial candidate Paladino forwarded friends and associates a series of racist and pornographic emails, including one that used the N-word and another that showed a video of African tribesmen dancing under the description: “Obama Inauguration Rehearsal.”
The email controversy followed other statements attributed to Paladino that Black leaders and others found offensive, including references to female African-American members of the school board as a “parasitic Black Sisterhood” and to the predominantly Black Commodore Perry Homes as being filled with “crack, craziness and nonsense.”
The release of the emails drew wide criticism from local and state elected officials and prompted calls for the review of all public leases held by Paladino or his family’s firm.
Paladino refused to apologize, saying he was politically incorrect, not racist.
Years later, Paladino sent comments to Artvoice, an alternative weekly, that, among other things, wished death upon President Barack Obama by mad cow disease and referred to First Lady Michele Obama as a someone who should be “let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cage with Maxie, the gorilla.”
After the comments were published, several prominent local politicians, including Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, called on Paladino to resign from the Buffalo School Board.
Paladino’s son also condemned his father’s comments as “disrespectful and absolutely unnecessary.”
“Mr. Paladino himself has indicated that he did not want to hurt members of the community. And I think to begin the process of healing he needs to take the leadership action of resigning from the board,” Brown said during an interview with WBFO.