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Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was

The Sunset Also Rises:

There’s a rumor afoot that a new restaurant, with a new name, will open soon at the site of One Sunset, at Delaware and Delevan. The failure of One Sunset and its defaulting on numerous public loans at least $160,000—along with the political and personal connections between Mayor Byron Brown and its owner, local basketball hero Leonard Stokes—became a scandal in the first few months of 2009, shortly after the restaurant shut its doors. There followed audits of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation, which pushed loans toward the business, perhaps at the mayor’s behest, even after the agency’s loan committee deemed Stokes’s venture unworthy of the risk. Stokes left in One Sunset’s wake a laundry list of unpaid bills and lawsuits (he owes $9,300 to his poultry vendor alone—$7,300 plus $2,000 in legal fees), and the scandal wound up costing former Ellicott District Councilman Brian Davis his job: Davis bounced a rent check to the restaurant’s landlord, Kevin Brinkworth. (Why Davis would pay rent for Stokes’s restaurant has never been completely clear, but it hinted at the deep political entanglements that characterized the place.) Brinkworth sued Davis, the media and federal investigators jumped on the story, and the resulting scrutiny of Davis’s finances led to his being charged with fraud and misuse of campaign funds. He took a plea deal and resigned.

Brinkworth says he’s never seen a dime of the money owed him by Davis or Stokes. After a couple adjournments, Davis agreed to pay a portion of his debt but has never made good. Stokes saddled Brinkworth with unpaid user fees, water bills, and taxes, as well as $20,000 in legal fees spent in fruitless pursuit of restitution.

BERC: a dramatic recreation.

Wither BERC?

On June 16, Delaware District Councilman Mike LoCurto called a special meeting of the Common Council’s economic development committee, which he chairs, to ask questions about the disposition of the assets, liabilities, and staff of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation. BERC suffered an embarrassing 2009: first, the One Sunset scandal; then, a scathing audit by the Department of Housing and Urban Development of the city’s administration of community development block grant funds, which, among its 19 findings, singled out poor practices at BERC.

The result: Mayor Byron Brown, in his January 2010 state-of-the-city speech, announced his intention to dismantle BERC by July of this year, transferring its functions to the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, which in some respects is BERC’s parent organization: BURA receives federal funds and contracts with BERC to deliver those funds through various programs: commercial loans, small business training, facade grants, etc.

Since Brown’s announcement, members of the Common Council have grumbled that the administration has shared little information about how exactly BERC would be dissolved, who would absorb its functions, and even if those functions would be continued.

Six of nine Council members attended: LoCurto, Council President Dave Franczyk, South’s Mickey Kearns, Masten’s Demone Smith, Niagara’s Dave Rivera, and North’s Joe Golombek, his shoes literally coming unsoled from all his door-to-door campaigning against Assemblyman Sam Hoyt. The center fielder for their questions was Brown’s finance director, Janet Penska, who explained that the city’s new economic development chief, Brendan Mehaffy, was working out a new, “place-based” economic development strategy in consultation with HUD, and that strategy would determine to what degree the city would continue to provide BERC-style services—commercial loans, for example—and through what agencies. (“Ask Brendan Mehaffy” was a refrain throughout Penska’s answers: She said that Mehaffy is the point of entry for all economic development issues, according to the mayor; Mehaffy is the point man for Franczyk’s questions about the the Broadway Market, whose executive director answers to and is paid by BERC; inquiries about BERC’s now suspended loan programs, about programs available to businesses and individuals who might previously have looked to BERC for help, about BERC properties that might be for sale—all of these questions were referred to Brendan Mehaffy. It seems Buffalo’s economic development czars inevitably are expected to eat the whole buffet.) In the meantime, BERC staff would continue to service existing loans and manage BERC properties, such as the Market Arcade building on Main Street.

Mickey Kearns wondered if the city ought to get out of the business of making commercial loans entirely, partnering instead with nonprofit groups like MicroBiz Buffalo or commercial banks. Demone Smith worried that the reluctance of commercial banks to make loans to businesses in poor neighborhoods is what led the city into the lending business to begin with.

Most likely, BERC’s functions and some of its staff will be folded into BURA, whose board, Penska said, is more transparent than BERC’s, especially as it includes Common Council members. This led Franczyk to ask about the Council’s appointee to the BERC board: Apparently, Franczyk appointed Niagara’s David Rivera, but the BERC board has not seated him. Assistant Corporation Counsel Tim Ball explained that, though BERC had traditionally accepted onto its board a Common Council appointee, it was under no statutory obligation to do so.

“My previous appointee obviously must have known that,” Franczyk said, referring to the disgraced Brian Davis, who was forced to resign last fall. “Because he didn’t attend any of the meetings.”

Laughter all around.

Ricchiazzi's Italian Campaign:

On June 15, at Black Rock’s First Amendment Club, young Matthew Ricchiazzi officially announced that he would seek the Republican nomination in the race against 60th District State Senator Antoine Thompson, a Democrat. Ricchiazzi has twice sought office before: He ran for mayor last fall and for the Buffalo School Board this spring. In the Riverside Review this week, columnist Ben Galletti poses a question: Can an Italian win in the 60th District, where Thompson can count on substantial support from the East Side’s African-American community?

Thompson faces a primary challenge, too, from former Common Councilman and State Senator Al Coppola. Other candidates in the 60th district include Tea Party activist Rus Thompson and attorney Mark Grisanti.

The call him "The Helper"

I’ll be exercising extreme caution as I enter my home for the next few days, as I’ve been tipped off by various sources that a slick new glossy mailer from Education Reform Now—thanking Sam Hoyt for voting to lift the cap on charter schools in New York—will be dropped inconspicuously through my mail slot soon. Such mailers have already arrived in mailboxes all over town from ERN’s temporary office in Brooklyn, some thanking Crystal Peoples-Stokes for her vote, and others reportedly thanking Antoine Thompson for his. One contact in Tonawanda confirms receiving one thanking Robin Schimminger.

I’m barely healed after the series of painful falls I suffered during the school board election at the hands of Education Reform Now Advocacy (ERNA). You’ll recall they sent mailer after mailer promoting Jason McCarthy from their local address in the Innovation Center of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, 630 Ellicott Street.

School board challenger Patricia Devis sent a demand letter to that address, telling ERNA that they need to file expenditure and contribution statements required by New York State Education Law or risk legal action to compel compliance. The letter came back marked “undeliverable.”

According to a BNMC informant, ERNA only rented the office for one month, and the only person who used it was Whitney Kemp, who referred all questions about the group to a spokesperson from New York City. They cleaned up and moved out immediately after the election, and a deposit check made out to ERNA was handed over to Kemp. That’s the last they’ve seen of her.

Meanwhile, another informant, whom I will call “Firefox” to protect her anonymity, tells me that ERNA has an address on Broadway in New York City. I picked up the blower and discovered that the phone number she provided connects to Democrats for Education Reform, the big charter school backing group funded by folks like Joel Greenblat and David Einhorn, who both gave them over $25,000 last fall.

When I pushed the extension to talk to executive director Joe Williams, a receptionist took my call. I asked if this was also the number for Education Reform Now Advocacy. She said yes. She also confirmed the Broadway address as their permanent office. The Brooklyn address is only a temporary office that will be closed after the November elections.

Stranger still in this hall of mirrors was the phone call I fielded from Ed Betz, who served as McCarthy’s campaign manager. Betz denied knowing who ERNA was at the time of the school board election, but now he wanted to pick my brain about what I might know about them. I told him I’d just been made aware of the mailer from ERNA thanking Peoples-Stokes, and he told me about the Hoyt mailer, and reminded me how much money Hoyt gets from pro-charter donors.

Then, acting on a hunch, I called Betz back and asked him if he was working on Joe Golombek’s campaign against Hoyt. He confirmed that he was. I asked him in what capacity, and he told me he was “the helper.”

No doubt Hoyt will benefit from independent expeditures by deep-pocketed charter school advocates. But, as Betz knows, Golombek is likely to be on the receiving end of some hefty independent expenditures, too. (See: “Pigeon, S.,” and “Golisano, T.”)

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