Public Record: AG Investigating Collins-era Public Works Invoicing

by / Oct. 13, 2015 2pm EST

INVESTIGATION INTO COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS: In 2013, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office began investigating allegations of wrongdoing in the handling of highway contracts at the Erie County Department of Public Works under Erie County Executive Chris Collins’s administration, The Public has learned. 

While one source did not know the target of the investigation, the other said that a recently terminated county employee is involved: Gary Zawodzinski, who was deputy commissioner in charge of highways at the Departnment of Public Works under Collins. Zawodzinski was fired this past summer. That same source added that County Executive Mark Poloncarz was not in any way involved in the misdeeds, nor were any members of his administration.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation said that an investigation is ongoing. After the story came out Tuesday morning, Schneiderman’s office issued a statement indicating that the investigation had been closed. Asked when the investigation was closed, Schneiderman’s spokesman did not respond.

Poloncarz, reached by phone Tuesday, said that the only investigation into the county Department of Public Works of which he is aware stems from actions that predate his administration. He said, shortly after taking office in 2012, his administration began an inquiry into anomalies in the invoicing for a 2010-2011 highway project. His legal team turned over the results of their probe to Schneiderman’s office in January 2013.

“We became aware of certain potential improper actions leveled during the final years of the Chris Collins administration,” Poloncarz said. “We performed an internal investigation and we turned that information over to the state Attorney General’s office for them to perform a more definitive investigation to determine whether inappropriate actions were taken in the Department of Public Works in 2010 and 2011.” 

The allegations center on the first two phases of the  $7.7 million reconstruction of 6.6 miles of Eden/Evans Center Road, by far the biggest road project undertaken during the Collins administration. Poloncarz’s investigation uncovered indications that the invoices for completed work had been altered. In the aftermath of Poloncarz’s 2011 election victory over Collins, after a hard-fought and bitter campaign, Poloncarz decided it would be better to turn over the results of his investigation to the Attorney General’s office, to avoid the appearance of political payback. 

Nonetheless, Poloncarz’s successor as Erie County Comptroller, David Shenk, audited the bidding process for the first two phases of the Eden/Evans Center Road project in 2012. Rather than putting the project out for an open bid, Shenk said, Collins’s public works commissioner, Gerard Sentz, had resorted to the “bid book,” narrowing the field to a handful of contractors prequalified each year by the county to perform minor road repair work. Five of those contractors—All American Companies of Western New York, Amherst Paving, Country Line Stone Co., Gernatt Asphalt Production and Union Concrete & Construction Corp.—did most of the work on Eden/Evans Center Road. The Buffalo Building and Construction Trades sued the Collins administration in 2011 for failing to bid out the entire project. In 2012, the Poloncarz administration put the $2.9 million phase three of the project out to open bid using a request for proposals process. The reconstruction was completed in November 2012 by Accadia Site Contracting.

At deadline, Congressman Chis Collins’s office had not responded to a request for comment. 

Poloncarz’s Republican opponent in next month’s general election, Ray Walter, immediately called a press conference Tuesday afternoon to discuss the investigation. Walter hosted reporters at the Erie County GOP offices in downtown Buffalo.

There, before the attorney general’s office had made public that the investigation was closed, Walter said the Poloncarz administration should have made its probe into the potential wrongdoing public after turning the information over to the state.

“We’ve heard obfuscation and cover-up from the administration up to this point,” Walter said. “We need answers.”

When asked by a reporter whether he would publicize an ongoing investigation if he were county executive, Walter did not answer directly, but repeated that the information should be made public.

“Taxpayers deserve to know when their taxpayer dollars are being misused and it’s important to let the public know what’s going on,” Walter said.

Poloncarz followed Walter half an hour later with his own press conference at the Rath Building, at which he repeated the points he’d made to The Public. —JUSTIN SONDEL

ANATOMY OF A STORY: Nobody wonders why allegations of governmental impropriety and scandal often surface so close to an election. They are planted with reporters by political campaigns or their allies. Such stories are currency for political operatives, to be jealously guarded and traded only when their value has peaked.

Such is certainly the case with Tuesday’s revelation about an investigation by the state Attorney General into financial irregularities at the Erie County Department of Public Works. 

Here’s how this one worked:

  1. GOP operative gets tip from a GOP elected official about something scandalous at the county Department of Public Works. Who knows, the elected official may have said to the operative, maybe you can roll this out and leave some of the stink from the story on the incumbent. The alleged wrongdoing predates the incumbent’s administration, but no matter.
  2. GOP operative peddles to story to several news outlets until he finds one that bites. (That’s us, The Public, along with City & State.) Reporter seeks confirming sources, finds them for some of the story he’s been sold but not for all of it—no one ever comments on an ongoing investigation—but is sufficiently confident as to write and publish a brief piece indicating the existence of the investigation, noting that it has no bearing on the incumbent’s administration.
  3. GOP opponent to incumbent quickly calls press conference, scolds incumbent, glosses over salient details such as the fact that the scandal took place under previous GOP administration, and that the investigation is in the hands of a state agency.
  4. GOP practitioners of social media take to the ether, crying scandal and cover-up.

Is it interesting that the Attorney General investigated a five-year-old public works scandal, and that a county employee allegedly tied to the scandal was fired within the last six months? Sure. Does it follow that the Poloncarz administration is engaged in “obfuscation and cover-up,” as Ray Walter claimed Tuesday afternoon? No, it does not.

A little scandal. A lot of politics. Count on the issue coming up in Wednesday night’s debate, and again and again between now and election day. —GEOFF KELLY