Walter, Poloncarz clash over AG probe of Erie County agency
The two rivals in the race for Erie county executive held dueling press conferences Tuesday afternoon to address a report that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had investigated the county Department of Public Works.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, a Democrat, and his challenger, Republican Assemblyman Ray Walter, both took questions from the media to address the City & State report, which cited anonymous sources saying that Schneiderman’s office had looked into allegations of paperwork being altered on a county road project.
Poloncarz said his administration handed over the results of an internal investigation to the state attorney general's office in January 2013.
“We became aware of certain potential improper actions leveled during the final years of the Chris Collins administration,” Poloncarz told City & State in a phone interview before the press conference. “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.”
City & State had reported in the morning that two anonymous sources said that the attorney general’s office was continuing its investigation, but a spokesman from Schneiderman’s office later in the day sent a statement saying that the findings of the Poloncarz administration had been thoroughly reviewed and that the case had since been closed with no further action.
Poloncarz questioned the timing of the sources coming forward with information, noting that he is in the middle of a re-election campaign with a debate set for tomorrow night.
“My administration is not involved in the investigation,” Poloncarz said. “My administration uncovered the information and the evidence that pertains to potential improprieties.”
A half an hour before the Poloncarz press event, Walter hosted reporters at the Erie County GOP offices in downtown Buffalo.
There, before the attorney general’s office had announced that the investigation was closed, Walter said the Poloncarz, who was county comptroller at the time of the alleged wrongdoing, should have made the 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.”
Asked whether he would have publicized an ongoing investigation if he were county executive, Walter did not answer directly. Instead, he repeated that the information should have been 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.
At Poloncarz's press conference on the 16th floor of the Rath Building, the county executive noted that Walter was a member of the Erie County Legislature when the actions investigated were happening. Poloncarz also said he felt it would have been irresponsible of him to share the information with the public while the attorney general was still looking into the matter.
“I’m an attorney,“ Poloncarz said. “I understand that when you’re trying to prosecute somebody you do not want to compromise information.”
The Poloncarz administration’s investigation centered 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 administration of Chris Collins, Poloncarz's predecessor as county executive. The investigation uncovered indications that the invoices for completed work had been altered in order to make portions of the project eligible for state Department of Transportation money that would not otherwise fit into the state’s Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvements Program. In the aftermath of the 2011 election, in which Poloncarz beat Collins in 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.
Poloncarz’s successor as Erie county comptroller, David Shenk, had audited the bidding process for the first two phases of the Eden/Evans Center Road project. Rather than putting the project out for an open bid, Shenk said, Collins' public works commissioner Gerard Sentz had relied on 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 third phase of the project out to open bid using a request for proposals process. The reconstruction was completed in November 2012 by Accadia Site Contracting.
One source said that Gary Zawodzinski, the deputy commissioner in charge of highways under Collins, had been a target of the investigation.
Walter also called into question why Zawodzinski, who was never faced any charges from the attorney general's office, was allowed to stay on as a county employee until he was fired over the summer for an unrelated matter.
“Something doesn’t add up here,” Walter said.
Poloncarz, who stressed that he had no reason to believe that Collins had any knowledge of the investigation, said he let Sentz go when he took over the office – though it is normal for incoming officeholders to replace administration officials – and that Zawodzinski was removed from his leadership role, but could not be terminated because of civil service law, especially since he had not been charged.
Poloncarz said he is comfortable with the way his office handled the investigation.
“Mr. Walter can say whatever he wants,” Poloncarz said.
Geoff Kelly of The Public, a City & State partner, contributed to this report.