Federal investigators are looking into allegations that City of Buffalo employees, including police officers, broke federal law last year while campaigning for Mayor Byron Brown.
Investigative Post acquired two emails last week concerning the investigation.
The first, dated June 12 of this year, is a formal complaint to the U.S Office of Special Counsel, alleging “officers of the Buffalo Police Department … appear to have engaged in political activity while on duty or while represented as police officers.”
The second, dated July 11, is an email from a law clerk at the Office of Special Counsel to the author of the complaint, seeking contact information for a potential witness.
A spokesperson for the Office of Special Counsel told Investigative Post the agency “is unable to comment on or confirm whether we have specific open Hatch Act investigations.”
However, the law clerk’s July 11 email clearly indicates there is one:
I am assisting in the investigation of the Hatch Act complaint that you recently filed against a number of City of Buffalo employees.
As one portion of our investigation, we would like to speak with Mr. Emin Egriu regarding his alleged interaction with a police officer on Oct 11, 2021. Are you able to provide contact information for Mr. Egriu?
On Oct. 11, Egriu was at the Broadway Market on behalf of the Muslim Alliance of Western New York, to announce the organization’s endorsement of India Walton, Brown’s opponent. According to Egriu, an on-duty, uniformed Buffalo cop — one of four patrolling the market during the press event — told those assembled the endorsement was a mistake and to “Write down Byron Brown.”
That is a violation of the federal Hatch Act, which the Office of Special Counsel is charged with enforcing, according to the complaint.
The Hatch Act regulates political activity by federal employees, but it also covers civil servants in state and local governments whose agencies receive federal funds. In Buffalo, that covers most city departments. It certainly covers the Buffalo Police Department.
Generally speaking, police are not allowed to participate in any political activity in uniform or on duty. They’re not permitted to use the authority of their jobs to support a political party or candidate. That’s departmental policy, as well as state and federal law.
Egriu — who is challenging U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins in this month’s Democratic primary — said he has already been interviewed by the Office of Special Counsel.
The complaint includes photos and video of city vehicles and their drivers visiting polling sites “in order to staff Brown campaign tables.”
Two videos appear to show a city-owned vehicle parked outside the Gloria J. Parks Community Center on Main Street on Oct. 28, during the early voting period. The video shows the driver talking to voters and poll workers, according to the person who shot the video.
Several photos appear to show a city employee visiting a polling station the next day at St. Columba-Brigid Church on Hickory Street, driving a white, city-owned van. The driver appears to be dressed for work, wearing a yellow safety vest.
Another photo shows a stack of Byron Brown campaign signs in the office of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, which is located on the first floor of the police headquarters building on Court Street.
Also included was a copy of a complaint filed last September with the city’s Board of Ethics, regarding a Brown TV commercial featuring more than a dozen Buffalo cops. The video’s text identifies them as “real Buffalo police officers.” Some are wearing clothing bearing the word “police” or the department’s seal. One appears to be wearing a gun belt, according to the complaint.
More than 100 people signed the complaint, expressing concern that the officers were not “acting as private citizens,” but leveraging their authority as police officers “to solicit support and donations for a partisan candidate for office,” in violation of city and department policies, as well as state law and the federal Hatch Act.
Attorney Stephanie Cole Adams wrote and submitted the complaint. Adams told Investigative Post she received no response from the ethics board.
The last time the ethics board posted minutes to its web page was October 2019. Five of its seven members are appointed by the mayor, per the city charter; the other members are the city’s lead attorney, also a mayoral appointee, and the city clerk.
The spokesman for the Office of Special Counsel, who would neither confirm nor deny the existence of a Hatch Act investigation, also declined to say how long such investigations take.
They last “from a few days to several months,” he wrote in an email, “depending on the details of the allegations and the scope of the investigation needed to determine whether there was a violation.”
Michael DeGeorge, spokesman for the mayor, did not respond to a text requesting comment, nor to an email containing specific questions, including whether the mayor was aware of the inquiry and whether any city employees or campaign staff had been interviewed.
This is not the first time federal investigators have turned their attention to the Brown administration. Most recently, in November 2019, FBI agents executed search warrants on the offices of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency and the city’s Office of Strategic Planning, removing boxes of records and other materials. In 2014, investigators for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determined the city had illegally spent $1.6 million of federal anti-poverty funds over several years.