by/ Sep. 18, 2015 1pm EST
When faced with direct questions about corruption allegations this past July, Mayor Byron Brown’s memory suddenly got fuzzy. Like other illustrious Americans before him—Alberto Gonzales in 2007, Ronald Reagan in 1990, and Roger Clemens in 2006—Brown’s recollection became selective under oath.
The Buffalo News reported last week that in a sworn deposition over the summer, he repeatedly invoked the infamous defense, claiming not to remember what went down in a failed 2009 development deal with NRP Group of Cleveland. NRP Group filed suit in 2011 accusing Brown of breach of contract and racketeering. At the core of the lawsuit is NRP’s claim that City Hall nixed the deal only after NRP balked at the mayor’s demand to reward Reverend Richard Stenhouse with an $80,000 contract.
Being counseled not to remember comes at an extraordinary price, The Public has discovered. According to the city comptroller’s office, $426,909 has been expended on high-profile Buffalo attorney Terrence Connors of Connors & Vilardo for the mayor’s civil defense in the NRP case dating back to 2011. The office of Comptroller Mark Schroeder told that The Public that additional payments related to Brown’s NRP defense may have occurred prior to 2011, but that those records are harder to access.
In 2012 The Public’s Geoff Kelly, then-editor at Artvoice, excerpted NRP’s lawsuit including quotes attributed by NRP’s lawyers to the mayor:
50. During the course of these events and in making the illegal demand, Brown said: “If you do not hire the right company [i.e. Stenhouse and/or the Jeremiah Partnership], you do not have my support for the Project.”51. Brown also said: “Make Stenhouse happy or the deal will not go through” and further stated that he was “sick of seeing those fucking white developers on the East Side with no black faces represented.”52. After the Development Team selected the UB Team instead of Stenhouse, Brown said: “I told you what you had to do and you hired the wrong company.”
The direct quotes suggest that NRP was in possession of evidence of Brown saying these things. At the time, Kelly wrote that a “number of sources came to us with a story said to have originated with a member of law enforcement, claiming that there exists an audio recording of a conversation between Brown and someone from NRP, and that it is being acted upon by a law enforcement agency.”
Confronted in July with the allegation of saying, “I told you what you had to do and you hired the wrong company,” Brown said he couldn’t remember. When NRP attorney Thomas Lane questioned him again, Connors objected, “He said he doesn’t recall.”
According to News reporter Phil Fairbanks, however, the “smoking gun” in the case for some time has been a 2009 email from then-Economic Development Commissioner Brian Reilly to Mayor Brown updating Brown on the status of the contract between the city, NRP, and Stenhouse. The key conditional phrase is Reilly’s “If that happens, presumably the file could be introduced for passage today at the Council.” NRP maintains that “if that happens” refers directly to their willingness to accept Brown’s demands.
For his part, the mayor remains hazy: “I don’t know what ‘if that happens’ means.”
It’s admittedly tricky to make hard and fast conclusions from a court transcript, but that the mayor chose to hide behind a shaky memory instead of vociferously denying claims that could derail his career is telling in its own right. Again from Fairbanks’s report:
Brown, in his deposition, was asked if he and Stenhouse ever talked about the project or if Stenhouse ever called him about a contract. “I don’t recall communicating with Reverend Stenhouse on this project directly at all,” Brown said.“So he never did?” Lane asked.“As I indicated, I don’t recall communicating with Reverend Stenhouse at all about this project,” Brown said.“Okay,” said Lane. “Does that mean you did not communicate with him about the project or you just don’t remember whether you did?”“I don’t recall that I did,” Brown answered.
What’s at stake in the lawsuit is Brown’s reputation. Should there be a ruling that the city is liable for damages as a result, would those damages even go beyond the enormous sum of public money that Brown has already spent? We know that Stenhouse settled his side of the case in 2012 for $200,000, if Brown could have made the same deal he would have saved the city a significant chunk of money. The truth is that Brown was never in a position to settle the case as that could implicate his guilt. And when you have bottomless resources of an impoviershed city at your disposal, why would you risk it?
And Stenhouse’s hefty penalty begs only more questions. If Stenhouse and Brown were innocent of these allegations, why would Stenhouse fork over $200,000 to make it go away?
The mayor has been down this road before, skirting the edges of controversies that implode after he’s walked away. This time, he’s betting close to half a million dollars of public money and the reputation of an influential minister that Buffalo’s collective memory is equally shoddy when his current term is up in two years.