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Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was

Patronage Watch

BMHA got fat paid by Uncle Sam.

We’re told that long-time Grassroots political operative Clarence Lott failed to hold on to his patronage job as a “training coordinator” for the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, having failed the civil service exam that position requires. But never fear: BMHA has found a new position for Lott, as a “compliance officer,” a posting that will give him another shot at clearing those pesky civil service hurdles.

Lott’s colleagues at BMHA include George “Eddy” Stokes, uncle of basketball-star-turned-failed-restaurateur Leonard Stokes; George landed a position with the housing authority as a crime prevention specialist after marrying Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples. Another Grassroots connection at BMHA is crime analyst Alonzo Thompson, Jr., whose father, also named Alonzo, was a deputy commissioner at the Erie County Board of Elections and more recently a staffer for the New York State Senate majority’s Western New York office, courtesy of political hack Steve Pigeon and his boss, divisive and embattled State Senator Pedro Espada of the Bronx.

In a previous column, we reported that BMHA had succeeded in obligating the $14 million in federal stimulus money it received by the March deadline imposed by Washington, DC. (Failure to line up contracts by March could have forced BMHA to return the money to the feds, who want it spent as quickly as possible.) Now BMHA must succeed in actually spending 60 percent of that $14 million by March 2011, and we’re told the agency is a couple months behind schedule, with the construction season more than half finished. Something to keep an eye on.

Committee For Change

Also keep an eye on a new political action committee called Committee for Change. The PAC’s treasurer is Peter J. Savage III, the mayoral aide who was recently made deputy corporation counsel. Savage is a protege of Mayor Byron Brown’s chief political officer, Deputy Mayor Steve Casey, so it’s fair to expect that the Committee for Change—which so far has registered no financial activity—will support the mayor’s allies. Count on the PAC to support to North District Councilman Joe Golombek, who is challenging Brown’s nemesis, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, in the Democratic primary on September 14.

And Speaking of Pedro...

The State Senate managed finally to pass a budget—more than four months late—in a session that the Bronx’s Pedro Espada threatened to skip (he eventually relented when the farmworkers’ rights and rent control bills he advocated were folded into the budget) and Manhattan’s Tom Duane briefly boycotted (he was holding out for a housing bill, also included). Western New York’s own Bill Stachowski ended a month-long standoff in which he demanded that the Senate pass legislation enabling the UB 2020 plan to move forward. Stachowski—who is facing Mike Kuzma and Tim Kennedy in this fall’s Democratic primary and, if he wins that, Republican Jack Quinn III in the general election—surrendered his yes vote for a promise that the Senate leadership would hammer out a SUNY reform bill in the near future.

Let’s cast our memories back two years. The Senate’s Democratic leaders promised to make Stachowski (who seemed on the verge of losing the general election to former Buffalo Police detective Dennis Delano) chair of the powerful Finance Committee if Democrats took control of the State Senate. Stachowski campaigned on the boon that chairmanship would be to Western New Yorkers. That didn’t happen: Stachowski got slighted, and the region never saw the great influx of pork the chair of the Finance Committee controls. So how good is this latest promise?

UB President John Simpson says that legislature’s failure to pass the enabling legislation may require UB 2020 to change its name to UB 2030.

Anonymous vs. Antoine

On Sunday the Buffalo News published two articles about State Senator Antoine Thompson’s use of taxpayer money to promote himself. According to the News, Thompson spent close to $500,000 on promotional mailings—and raised his office staff’s salaries by tens of thousands of dollars—during the state’s budget crisis, as many state workers faced layoffs.

Investigative reporter Jim Heaney’s articles claimed to rely on information from anonymous former employees, but all the information presented was current, leading some to speculate that Heaney was protecting current employees in Thompson’s office.

Another anonymous former Thompson employee, who insists on being called John Duke, says the Buffalo News’ information greatly differs from his. According to Duke, the situation is much worse than paying an office manager $86,000 a year. There is a press secretary, a director of information systems and technology, a full-time legislative assistant, a special assistant, an executive assistant, and a receptionist. Thompson’s Buffalo office spends much of its time on social events—breakfasts, luncheons, picnics, dances, spelling bees, and parades.

“There are 20 weeks between the Veterans Day Parade and the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade,” said Duke. “At the cost of $25,000 per week, Thompson’s office will spend another $500,000 preparing a half dozen office workers to march in it. Thompson could have taken the $500,000 spent on mailings and put 20 people on welfare back to work, paying them $500 a week. But then again that would mean actually accomplishing something.”

On The Waterfront

Nearly three weeks ago Congressman Brian Higgins issued and impromptu ultimatum to Bass Pro: Sign a lease agreement in the next two weeks or walk away from the Canal Side project. Bass Pro walked away and all hell broke loose.

On Tuesday, Mayor Byron Brown called a press conference in which he threatened a new round of fire and brimstone if the Common Council did not immediately transfer 7.8 acres of city land to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation. The Council has been using the property, which ECHDC covets in order to consolidate its control of the proposed Canal Side project area, as leverage to try to force ECHDC to negotiate a community benefit agreement, or CBA, that would include a living wage requirement for all businesses in Canal Side. With Bass Pro out of the picture, a new heavyweight moved on to the scene: HSBC Bank, according to the Brown administration and ECHDC, wants about half of that city land (the Webster block) for a new building, and if it’s not conveyed forthwith the ECHDC, HSBC will not consider Buffalo in its long-term plans when the bank’s leadership convenes in London over the coming months.

Talk about forcing a crisis. Brown allowed that he’d known HSBC wanted the Webster block for a month. ECHDC’s Larry Quinn said he’d known for three months. Common Council members said the first they’d heard of HSBC’s interest in the property was last Friday. Why the secrecy? The city’s chief economic development officer, Brendan Mehaffy, said the city was respecting HSBC’s privacy. Neither Mehaffy nor anyone else could explain exactly why HSBC—who have made no public comment on the issue—is only interested in buying or leasing the land from ECHDC, and not from the city directly.

We’ll know soon enough if the crisis is real: At a special session of the Common Council called by the mayor on Wednesday, Lovejoy’s Rich Fontana claimed HSBC had set a midnight deadline for the transfer of the land to ECHDC. But Fontana, who took the mayor’s and ECHDC’s part on the issue, could not rally the six votes needed to transfer the land. The issue is tabled until the Council returns from its August recess.

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