SETH GETS CAUGHT: Council Chairman Confirms Piccirillo Had No Authority to Approve Home Sale to Supporter

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Council Chairman Confirms Piccirillo Had No Authority to Approve Home Sale to Supporter

 

By: Frank Parlato

Mayoral candidate Seth Piccirillo is heir apparent to Mayor Paul Dyster and, if you like what Dyster has done for the city, you’ll love what Seth is going to do.

He seems ready to continue Dyster’s longstanding policy of selling out the city to Albany interests while taking care locally of friends, family and supporters.

A perfect example is how Seth allowed a supporter to wind up with a valuable house without bothering the council about it – as required by law.

Readers of the Reporter know some of the story:

Ryan Cali and Mathew Melcher purchased 424 Memorial Parkway from the City of Niagara Falls for $1,000 in 2017. The house is assessed for $48,000.  It was a giveaway price, sure, but because the couple promised to fix the house and live in it, the council approved the sale.

Cali and Melcher got the house on one condition: That they fix it up and move into it. If not, the house had to be deeded back to the city. This is called a “reverter clause”. The house reverts back to the city if the couple didn’t fulfill the terms of their agreement.

Cali told the Reporter she and Melcher tried to fix the house, but things happened.

“We had big plans at the time for that home,” she said. She and Melcher cleaned the house and removed “pee-soaked carpets” and “got the house inspected. We hired a contractor. We designed blueprints. And then we broke up.”

Cali and Melcher – who never moved in – sold the house to neighbor Karen Mock for $10,000.

This was in violation of the agreement with the city. But one cannot entirely blame Cali and Melcher.  They knew they had a contract that required them to fix the house and live in it or deed it back to the city. But they went to Seth Piccirillo, community development director and acting head of code enforcement.

For some reason, Piccirillo told Cali and Melcher they could sell the house – he would approve it – without them giving it back to the city, provided they sold it to Karen Mock.

Mock, a realtor, is one of Seth’s supporters and a member of Mayor Dyster’s Healthy Community Committee.

Cali said, “We went to Seth and begged Seth to consider an extenuating circumstance on our behalf. He said, ‘Yes,’ he would do that for us. So he allowed us to sell the house to Karen. Karen … knew that she would never be able to get it” without Seth.

Piccirillo approved the transfer and Mock got a house without competitive bidding. Some say the house is worth at least $30,000.

Mock, who was not planning to live in the house, already owns a home across the street as well as other properties. At least one of her properties on the street she got from the city for $500.

One neighbor said, with Seth’s help, “she’s treating the neighborhood like a Monopoly board.”

Mock said she wanted to buy the house for her son to live in. But even after getting the house, no one moved in.  It remains vacant.

All of this slippery dealing would have slipped under the radar and Mock would have gotten a sweetheart price for the home but things got botched up when the Memorial Parkway Block Club found out about the hazy deal and made complaints with state and federal officials asking them to investigate “irregularities” in Seth’s handling of the property.

The Buffalo News and the Niagara Reporter found out and reported it, which left Seth – in the middle of a mayoral campaign – scrambling to explain.

Seth quickly shifted gears, saying he now wanted the city to buy back the property from Mock and to use taxpayer money to reimburse Mock for the $10,000 purchase he approved.

In other words, the city sold the property for $1,000 and he wants taxpayers to pay Mock $10,000.

So whose fault is it anyway?  The Reporter asked Cali if she misled Mock in any way?

She said, “No, [Seth] gave us the green light.”

Cali said she didn’t know it wasn’t up to Seth to approve the sale to Mock and that by law he was required to go to the Council for approval.

According to one neighbor, the 5-bedrrom, 3,100 square foot home is worth more than the $10,000 Mock paid for it.

The neighbor said, “Though they are boarded up, the windows are in good condition. That house is in good shape structurally. There is a half bath in the basement, a full bath on the second floor and a full bath in the finished attic.  Then there’s the garage. Servants used to live in two bays in the garage.  There is a mural painted on the wall going up the stairs, and it’s got a fireplace with a mirror and copper on the sides. There are wall sconces in the basement. That’s where the doctor who used to live there had offices. The basement is completely finished. There’s a bar down there.”

Seth has declined to be interviewed by the Reporter.  He did issue a lengthy written statement explaining everything about the sale of the property except why he approved the sale to a supporter.

“From day one, we have tried to give the community what they are looking for,” he said. “In fact, we have went above and beyond. It has been a complicated process, but as always, we remain committed to seeing this house renovated,” he wrote.

The Reporter agrees with Seth on one point: He did go “above and beyond” — the law – and it became “complicated” after Seth broke the rules.

Seth goes on to admit that in four other cases, properties may have been sold illegally.

“NFCD…. has dealt with similar situations in the past,” he wrote in his statement and gave information about what seems to be suspicious sales on Ferry Avenue and McKoon where transfers of city property occurred – he claims – because of hardship – but does not say whether he got council approval to make the transfers.

Seth concludes by saying, “no processes were violated.”

Council Chairman Andrew Touma disagrees.

“It’s always supposed to go back to Council if there is a change in ownership,” Touma said. “If things didn’t go well with that particular bidder [Cali and Melcher], it’s supposed to revert back to the city so the council makes a decision on who the new owner should be. It’s just a matter that it should have gone back to Council and it didn’t.”

Of Seth’s violation of the law, Touma put it kindly: “He made a mistake. He didn’t go through the proper protocol and he needs to. The council is going to make sure that we make this right.”

But what is right?

On April 30th, Piccirillo wants the City Council to vote to pay Mock $10,000 to buy back the house the city originally sold for $1,000. Councilman Kenny Thomkins said that is not going to happen.

“There is not one councilmember willing to vote to buy the property back for $10,000 or at any price. We are going to consult with legal counsel.”

Meantime, the Memorial Parkway Block Club sent complaints to the State Comptroller’s Office and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, demanding an investigation into Piccirillo’s “inconsistencies.”

A member of the block club said they also plan to send a letter to New York State Attorney General.

In the interest of full disclosure, this is not the first time Seth arranged to help Mock.

In 2016, he persuaded the council to approve selling her a city-owned Chilton Avenue apartment house for only $500. The Chilton Ave. property had an assessed value of $37,260.

Ron Anderluh, of the Niagara Street Area Business Association, characterized the price as “very, very low” at the time.

Mock sat on the subcommittee of Mayor Dyster’s Healthy Community Committee at the time and Piccirillo argued that it was natural that someone on Dyster’s committee should get the house.

“It doesn’t surprise me that someone involved in the group was interested in that vacant property,” he said. “But I don’t think there’s a headline —member gets a sweetheart deal — that’s really not the case.”

Still block club members say it’s suspicious.

“It’s like, well, you get on the committee, maybe you’ll get something. This is very suspect, you know, to compensate. Volunteers are supposed to be volunteering, without compensation,” a block club member told the reporter.

And now, it seems, the Block Club has had enough of Seth’s “irregular” dealings.

 “We would appreciate your investigation into this matter,” the Block Club wrote to authorities at HUD and the State Comptroller’s Office.

 

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