Posts Tagged ‘One Sunset’

The One Sunset Scandal Claims its First Victim

July 9, 2009
Reilly?  Sounds suspicously like a Kearns supporter . . .

Reilly? Sounds suspiciously like a Kearns supporter . . .

Brian Reilly has been forced out at BERC:

Mayor Byron W. Brown has ousted the embattled president of Buffalo’s main development agency, saying the move is about “change and reform.”

Brown confirmed today that he asked for Brian Reilly’s resignation as president of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp.

“I felt Commissioner Reilly was wearing too many hats,” Brown told The Buffalo News today, adding that be believed these multiple roles contributed to a number of recent problems within the agency.

Reilly will continue to serve as Buffalo’s commissioner of economic development, permits and inspections services, a job that pays $91,162. Reilly was making an additional $36,071 for his role as BERC’s president.

I love it when incumbents cast themselves as the agents of “change” and “reform.”

I have to say that Brown is making the right kind of statements about reforming the way the city does its economic development.  Hopefully the reforms are real and lasting.  Still, there are a few problematic elements that remain.  For instance, why is Michelle Barron — who seems to have been much more deeply involved in the One Sunset shenanigans than Reilly — still on staff at BERC?  And why is Brian Davis — who helped steer anti-poverty money out of his district and into the wealthiest district in the city — still on the board?  And most importantly, who will hold Byron Brown — who is ultimately responsible for everything that happens at BERC — accountable?

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Answering the “Why?” in the One Sunset Scandal

June 24, 2009

Wny did this happen?

Why did this happen?

The News is reporting that 5 of the 9 members of the Common Council are calling for a “full and complete” audit of the Brown administration’s use of federal anti-poverty money.

Leading the charge is South District representative Michael P. Kearns, who is challenging Mayor Byron W. Brown in September’s Democratic primary.

Brown’s communications director insisted that today’s action is fueled by politics. Peter K. Cutler claimed city officials are already working closely with HUD representatives to address concern.

“This is yet another example of Council Member Kearns’ thinly veiled political agenda masquerading as good government,” said Peter K. Cutler. “With Mickey, it’s all politics, all the time.”

“This isn’t about politics … it’s about poverty,” Kearns said.

The Council’s call for an expanded federal review was made at a news conference outside a now-shuttered restaurant on Delaware Avenue near West Delavan Avenue.

HUD officials have raised concerns about the use of anti-poverty block grant funds for One Sunset. The restaurant received $160,000 in city and county loans and grants before it closed last December.

An investigation by The Buffalo News concluded that One Sunset was premised on a faulty business plan and that BERC employees circumvented the agency’s loan committee to snare money for the restaurant.

Well of course this is political.  It’s being spearheaded by Kearns and the anti-Brown faction on the Common Council, and it’s designed to make the mayor look bad.  But so what?  The mayor should be made to look bad because the situation is bad, and he shouldn’t get a free pass just because it happens to be election season.

For me, the real story is in how this is all being reported.  The News has done a great job of bringing the rotten One Sunset situation to light, and they should be commended for it.  But what’s been almost entirely missing from the discussion is one obvious question: why did the mayor, Michelle Barron, Brian Davis and others go so far out of their way to help Leonard Stokes?

I mean, sure, the city might regularly squander and misuse anti-poverty money, but that doesn’t explain what happened here.  The mayor, who has been nearly impossible to meet with for so many, has no problem having more than one meeting with an unqualified twenty-something businessman looking for a handout?  Barron gets money for Stokes by evading the internal BERC structures that were in place to avoid giving bad loans, and goes on to act as the de facto manager of the restaurant?  Davis covers the restaurant’s overdue rent with a personal check?  I don’t know the details of every business that the city grants aid, but I have to believe that this kind of hands-on help is unique.  So while the News has done a great job of answering the who/what/when/where questions, they’ve not yet answered the most important question: why?

I’ve suggested an answer to that question, namely that Stokes is related to one of the co-founders of the Grassroots political organization.  I’d love to see someone with a press credential start asking about those connections.  In fact, I’d love it if they had asked those questions right from the start.

Leonard Stokes’ Grassroots Connection: Part Deux

June 22, 2009
All in the family . . .

All in the family . . .

Ok, let’s try this again.  It appears that the substance of my original post on this subject is true: Leonard Stokes has a family connection to the Grassroots machine, which just might have something to do with why he received such unusually attentive service from the city when he was opening his doomed restaurant, One Sunset.

I’ve heard from two solid sources that Crystal Peoples got married this Saturday.  Congratulations and Mazel Tov!  The groom’s last name: Stokes.  He’s either the father or grandfather of Leonard Stokes, the ex-basketball player and would be restaurateur.

Now, it could be the case that the relationship between Stokes’ family member and Assemblywoman Peoples began after June 2007, when Stokes began receiving city money to help start his restaurant.  And it isn’t necessarily the case that the relationship led to the extraordinary help that Stokes received over the brief lifetime of his business.  But the pieces fit, and it appears that there are new questions that need to be asked of people like Stokes, Michelle Barron, and Byron Brown.

One Sunset and IDA Reform

June 5, 2009

IDA RallyEarlier today I attended a press conference to support reforming Industrial Development Agencies statewide.  These agencies play the lead role in economic development in NYS, granting some $400 million in subsidies and incentives to businesses who promise to provide increased employment and opportunity for state residents.  The rally was organized by the good folks at the Coalition for Economic Justice, as part of a statewide campaign.

So what’s wrong with giving away tax  breaks and subsidies to create jobs?  Nothing, unless you’re a strict libertarian.  The problem is that so few of these deals actually produce the benefits they promise.  In fact, a 2006 audit found that only 1/3 of these projects met the job creation targets on which they were premised, and another 1/3 actually ended up losing jobs.

On top of that, the state has 115 different IDAs while Western New York has 6 of its own.  The result is that, in typical NYS fashion, services are duplicated and agencies fight amongst themselves to protect turf rather than working for the greater good.

Just recently, the One Sunset scandal has shed some light on how the Erie County IDA makes its decisions.  It ain’t pretty:

City officials, including Barron, urged the Erie County Industrial Development Agency to loan the restaurant $50,000 without disclosing the restaurant was on the brink of closing. The IDA made the loan without checking financial statements or public documents showing One Sunset was in trouble.

Wow.  Maybe I can get IDA money to start my own business — say, a blog — without submitting financial information or having a sound business plan.  Never mind — I’m not connected to Byron Brown.

An IDA reform bill recently passed in the State Senate, and our own Sam Hoyt is sponsoring a similar bill in the Assembly.  The business community is up in arms, of course, because the free market demands that private businesses should receive taxpayers dollars with no guarantee of actual public benefit.  Sam spoke at the press conference.

That's an activist podium, nothing fancy like the mayor's . . .

That's an activist podium, nothing fancy like the mayor's . . .

Scapegoating Michelle Barron

June 3, 2009
She's not the issue . . .

She's not the issue . . .

The News is reporting that the mayor’s internal probe (ha!) of the One Sunset scandal lays most of the blame on BERC staffer Michelle Barron.  How convenient for Byron Brown, who is, you know, actually in charge of BERC.

While Mayor Byron W. Brown wouldn’t comment on any aspect of the probe, he stressed Tuesday that he did not orchestrate efforts to steer public funds to One Sunset owner Leonard Stokes. The News asked Brown about rumblings that he had meetings with Stokes as the businessman was trying to build his restaurant.

“Have I met with him? Absolutely. But I meet with literally hundreds of people every week,” Brown said.

The “rumblings” that Brown met with Stokes matches what I heard last week — that a recently-departed insider had a copy of the mayor’s schedule for the last few years, that it was being shared with media sources, and that it showed that Brown met with Stokes more than once.

It’s also funny to hear Brown claim that he has such an open door policy.  During the two years that he was refusing to enforce the city’s living wage law, he steadfastly refused to meet with the Coalition for Economic Justice, the folks behind the living wage campaign.  It finally required erecting a tent city in Niagara Square and holding a sit-in outside his office to get a meeting.

The mayor wouldn’t meet with representatives from labor and religious groups with thousands of members  for two years, but he was perfectly happy to meet with an unqualified businessman looking for city handouts?  This suggests two things.  First, as I’ve suggested before, there must be some sort of personal relationship at play to grant Stokes this sort of unusual access.  And second, the One Sunset scandal starts at the top, and we should be wary about the attempt to pin it on Michelle Barron.