BY MATT RICCHIAZZI;
Buffalo Comptroller Mark Schroeder is being heralded by good government activists for launching Open Book Buffalo, the database that makes the city’s accounting, contracting, and payroll records publicly accessible online. That has made a trove of information available to journalists, activists, and political opponents in a city that is reportedly the 4th poorest and, simultaneously, among the highest taxed cities in one of the highest taxed states.
The political implications of Open Book Buffalo and the information it may reveal upon careful analysis may have an impact in next year’s Mayor’s race, when Mayor Byron Brown is expected to face the energetic Comptroller.Using data retrievable through this database allows anyone in the city to study the relationships between campaign contributors to Brown and city contracts that those same contributors have received from his administration.
In presenting information culled from Open Book and The New York State Board of Elections, Artvoice makes no judgment. Our role is to present the facts. And the facts are that those who donate to Mayor Brown often get work from the city. Or, conversely, those who get work from the city, often donate to Mayor Brown.
It may be true that donors contributed to Brown out of an earnest desire for good governance, and it may be true that Brown gave no heed to whether a company or individual donated to his reelection campaigns as he determined who was best qualified for contracts he awards.With that said, let us examine a few, out of many, where there was both a donation to Brown and where Brown selected the donor for a contract with the city.
The city regularly contracts for legal services for a vast range of legal work. Those contracts are not subject to public bidding processes because they are considered professional services. In other words the mayor chooses who gets the work. A hasty conclusion might be that, often, the most politically connected firms get the most lucrative contracts.
For example, Hodgson Russ LLP contributed $36,900 to Brown for Buffalo. The firm contributed an additional $6,100 to Mayor Brown’s Leadership Council. They received $396,678 in city contracts for 2014; $390,954 in 2015; and $389,042 in 2016. Partners at the firm, including Adam Perry – who is remarkably close to Brown and has enjoyed years of lucrative contracts with the city, county, and its instrumentalities – has contributed thousands more to Brown and other fundraising vehicles intended to help Brown. Perhaps coincidentally, August 6th has been proclaimed Adam Perry Day in the City of Buffalo.
Sometimes the money that these firms earn from the city, when compared to their contributions to Brown, makes it appear, if it were a business investment, that it could be described as a good financial return.
Colucci & Gallaher – the firm managed by the politically connected Anthony Colucci III – contributed $5,050 in six separate contributions to Brown for Buffalo and $1,500 to Mayor Brown’s Leadership Council. The firm received an almost exponential return of $48,545 in contracts for legal work in 2015.
But the firm Goldberg Segalla LLP enjoyed a far larger return. That firm contributed $2,250 to Brown for Buffalo in four installments. In 2014 their city contracts totaled $114,116; in 2015 they totaled $51,459; and in 2016 they total $97,362.
Barclay Damon received contracts of $90,967 in 2014; $103,295 in 2015; $97,507 in 2016; all from the Water Board Fund. The firm contributed $6,500 to Brown for Buffalo.Sometimes patterns appear to emerge.In 2014, the law firm Damon Morey LLP contributed $1,000 to Brown for Buffalo and in the same year received $13,500 in legal work from the city. In 2015 the firm contributed $1,200 to Brown and received $13,167 in contracts. In 2016 the firm contributed nothing to Brown for Buffalo and received no city contracts.
Reading between the lines of data entries reveal that selections of lawyers might be, arguably, said to be determined not by how much lawyer donates to Brown but also by a willingness to accomplish the mayor’s political objectives.
Hurwitz & Fine is a firm managed by Ann Evanko. She presided over a public hearing and made an extraordinary, and, as critics contend, shocking anti- First Amendment written “determination” that housing commissioner Joe Mascia should and could be fired by Mayor Brown.
Hurwitz and Fine didn’t receive legal work in 2014 or 2015. But in early fiscal 2016, Brown appointed her to be the public hearing officer – for Mascia, one of Browns harshest critics. The basis of the hearing was that, once, when he was off duty, Mascia uttered during 31 seconds of a private conversation, which happened to be secretly recorded, offensive speech. Hearing Officer Evanko, after conducting her hearing, made the determination that a citizen’s words in private conversation can be judged to be impermissible speech and that a citizen can be punished by the government for impermissible speech. It was a ruling that, were it to become precedent it would shatter the bedrock principles of freedom of speech. Her ruling is on appeal in State Supreme Court.
Brown, however, used her determination to fire Mascia. Evanko’s firm received $54,500 for legal work for the city in 2016. Her law firm contributed $1,000 to Mayor Brown’s Leadership Council and $7,105 to Brown for Buffalo.
It gets even more complicated when we take a look at professional services relating to construction, architecture, and design. While it seems that every major firm that does business with the city donates to the mayor, their ‘return on investment’ varies widely.
Nussbaumer & Clark, which provides engineering and design services on city funded construction projects, contributed $17,550 in 14 transactions. In 2014 that firm’s city contracts totaled $306,453; $220,460 in 2015; and $230,100 in 2016.
Cannon Design Architecture & Engineering received General Fund contracts in 2014 totaling $341,995; $57,960 in 2015; and $302,164 in 2016. They received an additional $299,033 in contracts from the city’s Special Projects Fund. That firm contributed $900 to Brown for Buffalo and another $500 to Mayor Brown’s Leadership Council.
Another firm, C&S Engineering, contributed $750 to Brown for Buffalo and another $1,000 to Mayor Brown’s Leadership Council. They received $15,500 in city work in 2015; and $68,672 in work in 2016 from the General Fund. They received an additional $34,825 in city work from the Capital Budget.
The Rochester-based architecture, engineering, and planning firm Bergman Associates contributed $5,920 to Brown for Buffalo in 12 installments. In 2014 that firm’s Capital Fund contracts totaled $1,222,042; $916,294 in 2015; and $494,035 in 2016.
Construction contracting is more nuanced, because that spending is subject to open bidding laws that require the city’s procurement officers to evaluate bidders in a way that is consistent and selects the lowest bidder on any given project. Still, critics have alleged that those procurement processes are often tainted by a small community of government contractors that always seem to get the inside track and just as always seem to donate to Mayor Brown.
Colgate Heating Corporation gave Brown for Buffalo contributions of $2,300 from June of 2007 through April of 2015 and another $500 to Mayor Brown’s Leadership Council. In 2014, their city contracts amounted to $239,674; $65,528 in 2015; and $60,875 in 2016.
DV Brown & Associates, a mechanical engineering outfit located at 567 Vickers Street in Tonawanda, gave two contributions to Brown for Buffalo totaling $2,000. That firm’s General Fund contracts totaled $48,080 in 2014; $56,404 in 2015; and $627,628 in 2016 from the General Fund. The firm received $109,000 in 2014; $225,016 in 2015; and $235,214 in contracts from the Capital Budget. It also received contracts of $164,303 in 2015 and $51,603 in 2016 from the Water Board Fund.
Frey Electric contributed $2,800 to Brown for Buffalo in seven transactions. In 2014 their city contracts totaled $24,798; in 2015 they totaled $32,907; and in 2016 they totaled $36,593 – all from the General Fund. The firm also received $216,855 in 2014; $1,239,535 in 2015; and $69,819 in 2016 in Capital Budget contracts. The firm received contracts of $19,208 in 2014 from a special energy efficiency fund and $179,305 in 2016 from Homeland Security funds.
Hannah Demolition – a firm owned and operated by a successful felon whose supporters characterize his as a remarkable story of redemption – gave $12,000 to Brown for Buffalo in four contributions. They received $1,224,330 in 2014; $538,604 in 2015; and $493,486 in 2016 from the Capital Budget.
DiDonato Associates PC contributed $22,000 to Brown for Buffalo. The same firm received $2,233,375 in Capital Budget contracts in 2014; $2,089,895 in 2015; and $1,124,014 in 2016. They also received $7,395 in General Fund contracts in 2014; and $1,305 in 2015.
While Artvoice has only scratched the surface of donations to Brown and work donors secured, keep in mind that the record is incomplete. Open Book Buffalo presently only records City of Buffalo vending relationships. In the coming weeks Open Book will add financial data for three municipal entities with a combined $114 million annual budget: the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, the Buffalo Sewer Authority and the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.
Was more work awarded by Brown to some of the donors mentioned in this article by these entities, all of which are under the mayor’s sole control and where contracts with vendors do not need to be reviewed by council?
Stay tuned as Artvoice continues its review in the coming weeks.