If the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission is not an agency of the State of New York, why does its chairwoman, Norma Higgs, get a special set of license plates issued only to state officials?
Buffalo Sabres owner Tom Golisano and state Sen. George Maziarz want to know -- and, frankly, so do we. Because the bridge commission rakes in tens of millions of dollars each year, doesn't pay any taxes and is apparently accountable to no one.
If you ask the commission's lawyers, they'll tell you that the agency is "bi-national" -- meaning that half its members are Canadian -- and that state and federal laws don't apply to it.
The Niagara Falls Reporter has a special interest in this case. We ran into this same wall of silence during our investigation of Joel Cicero, former bridge commissioner, son-in law of Laborers Local 91 kingpin Michael "Butch" Quarcini and, now, convicted racketeer.
We had been told by a Colorado developer, Joe Aragon, that Cicero had used his position on the commission in an attempt to extort money from him, along with forcing him to hire union members for no-show jobs on a restaurant Aragon was building at the entrance to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.
The Reporter filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests in an attempt to verify Aragon's charges. The commission's attorneys fought tooth and nail to deny us access.
We obtained an opinion from Robert Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, stating that there was no legal basis for the commission's claim. Finally, using other channels, we obtained enough evidence against Cicero to result in his indictment. He was removed from the commission by Gov. George Pataki shortly before being indicted by the feds.
In Cicero's case, the commission used its "bi-national" status claim to shield a racketeer from prosecution.
While the Reporter didn't have the money to sue the commission and challenge its make-believe status, Tom Golisano and his Responsible New York organization most certainly do.
"I hope it doesn't come to that," Golisano said. "I hope Gov. Paterson, after hearing of this, will move on his own. But if not, we're fully prepared to go proceed with a suit."
Prominent local attorneys John Bartolomei and Ned Perlman were on hand at a Friday City Hall press conference called by Golisano and Maziarz to announce the potential suit. Golisano indicated that Bartolomei would represent him and Responsible New York in such an action, while Maziarz would be represented by Perlman.
Both lawyers have been players in the type of high-profile governmental cases that generate headlines. Each has an impressive track record and a high rate of success in the cases they've chosen to involve themselves in.
Maziarz first threatened to sue the commission back in October, when he was unable to obtain the details of the severance package given to the commission's former executive director Tom Garlock, rumored to amount to several hundred thousand dollars. "We don't even know if he was fired or he quit," Maziarz said. "The commission operates in almost total secrecy. Their meetings are closed to both the public and the press."
Local elected leaders from both sides of the aisle joined Maziarz in support of the sort of transparency and openness that they themselves work under. County Legislator Renae Kimble, City Councilman Steve Fournier Jr. and Town of Niagara Councilman Charles Teixeira joined Golisano and Maziarz at the podium during Friday's news conference.
"This is money that's being collected in Niagara Falls, and we can't even find out how much money or what it's being used for," Fournier told the Reporter. "There's got to be some accountability."
Fournier added that a $200 million surplus that is believed to be sitting in one of the commission's bank accounts would go a long way toward improving conditions in the city that plays host to two of the three bridges run by the commission.
Sources told the Reporter that City Controller Maria Brown called each of the councilmen prior to the news conference, urging them not to attend. Had Fournier not shown up, city officials could have barred Golisano and Maziarz from using the Council chambers to hold the event.
Maria Brown's husband, Patrick Brown, is a member of the bridge commission.
Last year, Kimble sponsored a resolution -- passed unanimously by the Legislature -- that demanded release of the details of the Garlock severance package.
Conspicuously absent from the conference were Mayor Paul Dyster and state Rep. Francine Del Monte, whose public records on transparency and open government are both well known and less than stellar.
Sen. Antoine Thompson -- who had personally promised Golisano he would be there -- also failed to attend, after receiving calls from Del Monte and Niagara County Democratic Chairman Dan Rivera, who warned of the potential for a politically damaging scandal that might ensue should the details of the commission's finances be subjected to public review, sources said.
For its part, the commission continues to maintain the fiction that it receives nothing from the state and operates solely on the millions upon millions of dollars generated by bridge tolls. The argument, ridiculous on its face, rests on the logic that there is a fundamental difference between taking people's money in the form of a tax and taking people's money in the form of a toll.
Commission Chairwoman Norma Higgs -- a close associate of Dyster's who uses her weekly Niagara Gazette column to propagandize on behalf of both the commission and the administration -- was the latest in a long line of commissioners to issue a lawyered-up statement as to why backroom deals make for good government.
"They've got official state license plates, and the American members are appointed by the governor," Maziarz said. "Yet they feel as though they don't have to answer to state government, the news media or the people of New York state."
Golisano, who made himself a billionaire as the founder of Paychex Inc., a Rochester-based payroll and human services resource company, said he founded Responsible New York to advocate for open and accountable government here.
"What are they trying to hide?" he asked. "Because if they didn't have something to hide, they wouldn't be fighting this like they have been."
Last fall, Golisano made headlines by donating $10 million to Niagara University, the largest single endowment in the school's 152-year history. Asked whether he planned on becoming more involved in Niagara County, Golisano answered with an unequivocal yes.
If it comes to pass, the suit could also set a precedent for other "bi-national" agreements, such as the one between the parks commissions of New York and Ontario and the Maid of the Mist Corp., the private company that for decades has benefited from no-bid contracts to operate its tour boats on the lower Niagara River below the falls.
"There's a lot of money involved there as well," Golisano said.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||February 10 2009|