PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
Democratic Legislator Justin Wilcox
Republicans on a County Legislature committee have shot down Democratic legislation that would have formed a panel to lead an internal probe of county-linked local development corporations.
The county administration hired a Buffalo-based law firm to assist with ongoing state Attorney General's Office and FBI investigations and one of the firm's partners, former Attorney General Dennis Vacco, has led an internal probe of the LDC's.
But Democrats say that an internal investigation belongs under the Legislature's oversight. Vacco appears to be reporting to County Executive Maggie Brooks, they say.
"The county executive cannot be allowed to investigate her own administration, the actions of her own appointed department heads, her own office, or even her own actions," Legislator Justin Wilcox, the legislation's sponsor, said during tonight's committee meeting.
Democrats also say they have questions about who Vacco has been talking to, what he's been talking about, and what he's found. And they say they've gotten no substantive information about the investigation.
The three Republican legislators on the committee — chair John Howland, Jeff McCann, and Michael Rockow — offered no remarks before casting their votes. Afterward, Majority Leader Steve Tucciarello explained that the Republicans rejected the legislation because the caucus is "committed to protecting the integrity" of the state Attorney General's Office and federal investigations. He said the caucus wants to respect the timelines of those investigations and that he has confidence in the adminstration's review.
"Sooner or later all of that is going to come out," Tucciarello said.
But Wilcox said that Tucciarello and the Republicans are conflating criminal investigations with an internal review that would look at county policies related to LDC's. Democrats have tried to pass LDC reforms for several years, but their efforts intensified recently after four men, including former chief information technology officer for the county, Nelson Rivera, and Brooks's husband, Robert Wiesner, were arrested. All four defendants face bid-rigging charges, though the charges against Wiesner will likely be dropped on Wednesday. The Attorney General's Office has said it intends to impanel a new grand jury to consider charges against Wiesner.
Last week, Democrats voted against a major county borrowing package, one that requires a two-thirds majority vote to pass, to try to leverage favorable action on the oversight proposal. That package included $44 million in borrowing for Monroe Community College's new downtown campus. Republican legislators and County Executive Brooks have criticized the Democrats' vote, saying that it'll hold up the MCC project's progress.
Democrats take issue with that line of attack. They say that the downtown campus project is in no immediate danger. Last year, the Legislature authorized $28 million in borrowing for the project and Democrats say that $24 million of that funding is still available. And they point to two pieces of legislation which will be considered by other Legislature committees this week that would authorize contracts for design and construction management services for the project. The two contracts total $7 million.
College officials, while unhappy about last week's vote, haven't said whether it will truly delay any aspect of the project.
"I think it's too soon to tell what will happen," college spokesperson Cynthia Cooper said this afternoon.