On Monday, the Buffalo Common Council met at their regularly scheduled caucus, where members review agenda items ahead of their Tuesday committee meetings. The meeting discussed the BMHA’s pending request for a $250,000 grant to cover its ongoing operating deficit – despite the fact that the authority owes the city $3 million, mostly related to three years of unpaid balances on a contract for security services with the Buffalo Police Department.
As members discussed the grant, Councilman Darius Pridgen asked, “Isn’t Mike Seaman the Chairman of BMHA? Isn’t he also the City Treasurer?”
“Collecting outstanding debt is the Treasurer’s job,” he said, puzzled, invoking giggles across the room. The request is being sent back to the Finance Committee so that the Council has an opportunity to interrogate BMHA executives.
Housing commissioner Joe Mascia attended the caucus, despite his suspention last July following the release of a now infamous recording in which he used a controversial word. In an exclusive interview with Artvoice, the recently ousted city housing commissioner Joe Mascia says that his use of a widely publicized epithet “was intended to communicate the Mayor’s betrayal of Buffalo’s African American community, for whom the Mayor hasn’t done a damn thing,” he explains.
Mascia continues to apologize for his use of the word, but thinks that Mayor Byron Brown should apologize for ignoring marginalized populations in his three terms in office. On May 16th, Anne E. Evanko will make her recommendation to the Mayor on whether or not he has the authority to remove Mascia from his elected office.
“Since I’ve been suspended, I’ve continued to take every phone call and to help every tenant who asks it,” he explains. “The people that were mentioned weren’t doing enough for their own community, and I was referring to specific people and their specific roles.”
As forces try to neutralize Mascia, he asks “what’s worse: Mascia using the n-word or BMHA not paying their $650,000 annual police contract since 2013?”
It would be easier to dismiss the story of Mascia as just another guy caught on tape saying something that he shouldn’t have said. But to do so ignores a backstory wrought with political intrigue, personal betrayal, and far reaching consequences that should concern every taxpayer.
One year ago, the controversial publisher of The Buffalo Chronicle, Matt Ricchiazzi, launched an investigation into the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority at the behest of Commissioner Joe Mascia. The first in the series of stories predicted that Mascia could expect “political retribution” for his role in exposing the authority’s inefficiency, mismanagement, and suspect procurement processes.
In hindsight, that was an understatement.
Mr. Ricchiazzi’s reporting was accurate, well sourced, and uncannily prescient. In The Chronicle series about Mascia, Ricchiazzi named a lot of names and made a lot of enemies. On February 22, 2015, he cited the powerful local businessman Jim Jerge; the politically connected attorney Adam Perry and his firm Hodgson Russ; Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes; then District Attorney Frank Sedita; and County Clerk Chris Jacobs; for misconduct or complicit behavior that was exposed by Mascia.
In its typically sensationalist style, The Chronicle’s March 4, 2015 article opened with the line: “Housing Commissioner Joe Mascia has been targeted for political retribution by the Board members of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority ever since he began asking questions about a suspect asbestos removal contract last February”. That contract to demolish the Kensington Heights complex mysteriously inflated from $5 million to $13 million, and one of complex’s buildings is still standing.
Only five days later, Paul Christopher was secretly recording his long-time friend while prodding him to disparage a list of Black politicians aligned with the political club Grassroots, in a 15 second staccato performance. That recording turned up at The Buffalo News four months later – in the middle of Mascia’s campaign for Common Council – and was quickly made famous in the local media. A two-minute portion of the recording was published the day after Mascia’s Committee on Vacancies would have been able to appoint another candidate to his ballot position.
Who paid for the tape?
As his political opponents demanded he end his campaign and resign his office, Mascia refused – stunning the city’s political world. Instead, he asked who paid Christopher to produce the tape and why? Mascia immediately suspected that former County Executive Joel Giambra (now a lobbyist real estate developer) and Mike Seaman (the BMHA Chairman) executed the plot on behalf of a client, whom Mascia suspected to be Norstar (the developer who is actively privatizing BMHA complexes), with whom Mascia has often spared. Christopher mentions Giambra by name in footage made publicly available by WGRZ, but denies a plot.
Giambra is the childhood friend of Mike Seamen, the Chairman of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and a senior figure in the administration of Mayor Byron Brown. Mascia had been calling for Seamen’s resignation because of the housing authority’s mismanagement, financial improprieties, and improper contracting practices. The situation had become so bad that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a “Substandard Management” rating and threatened federal receivership of the 31-property agency in a letter dated March 31, 2015.
Earlier that year, Giambra had reached out to Mascia to suggest that he “sit down and get on the same page with Seaman.” Mascia declined the meeting requested by Giambra but encouraged Seaman to reach out to him directly. The phone call never came.
Mascia has been the city’s most outspoken critic against the continued privatization of the housing authority, policies championed quietly by Mayor Byron Brown and Council President Darius Pridgen. While Mascia has been fighting against forces of gentrification and the displacement of the poor and minorities, Brown and Pridgen have been taking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions (seemingly to sell off housing projects to private developers) including Norstar — one of the largest and most consistent contributors to both men.
On June 17, 2011, when Pridgen had been actively vying for the Ellicott district Council seat, Linda Goodman — a regional executive with Norstar — contributed $7,500 to his election campaign, far beyond the legal limit of $1,000. Mayor Brown has had a longstanding relationship with Norstar, which appears on almost every single campaign finance disclosure that the Mayor has ever filed. He is simultaneously, albeit quietly, pushing for the privatization of several housing complexes. Norstar is currently demolishing and reconstructing the Shoreline Apartments on Niagara Street, and the AD Price Courts property on Jefferson Avenue.
The day prior to The Buffalo News’ release of Mascia’s infamous audio recording, he was introducing Comptroller DiNapoli, Senator Kennedy, Mayor Brown, and Comptroller Mark Schroeder to the Guercios, the longtime West Side grocers.
How could Mascia be so stupid?
For those who have listened to Mascia’s 15-second litany of name-calling, many have wondered aloud how could Mascia have been so easily duped, given how obvious Christopher’s prodding appeared. The situation had all the hallmarks of a setup.
As the regional manager of Sheen and Shine, a cleaning services firm, Christopher asked his employee, Mascia, to travel to Albany with him on the premise that they were lobbying the Senate for government contracts. Mascia didn’t know why his boss wanted him to tag along, but figured that he hoped to leverage Mascia’s relationships in the political community — earned over five terms as the city’s elected housing commissioner. Mascia, age 70, knew Christopher for nearly 40 years and was happy to introduce Christopher to a few people.
Mascia had watched Christopher — who has a considerable arrest record in Buffalo and Tonawanda — lead a troubled and confused life, rife with drug use and domestic violence, while working illegally as a bookie. He has been largely estranged from his family for the past ten years. Christopher grew up as a street kid from the Westside: crass, poorly educated, and brute.
Mascia felt obligated to help Christopher, who he thought of like a son who was in need of guidance and mentorship. They shared many conversations about life, work, politics, and people. Mascia was sometimes too colloquial with his language, in an effort to bond with Christopher, who is nearly 30 years younger.
Pictured: Mascia and Christopher on an oddly premised trip to Albany to lobby State Senator Tim Kennedy for government contracts on behalf of Sheen and Shine, for whom Christopher was a regional manager.
The Article 78 lawsuit
Mascia had filed an Article 78 lawsuit on February 27, 2015, challenging the legality of Mayor Brown’s appointment of 5 persons to the BMHA Board of Commissioners in October 2014. Mascia contended that the appointments were illegal and that the commissioners were without authority to conduct BMHA business. The Mayor had attempted to appoint each to five year terms rather than staggering their appointments to retain institutional memory congruent with the New York State Housing Law. On April 9, 2015, Mascia was appearing in New York State Supreme Court for a hearing on his lawsuit, as WBFO’s Brian Meyer was reporting on a possible federal takeover of public housing managed by BMHA.
A March 31 letter from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development demanded that BMHA submit a board-approved recovery plan within 30 days or risk federal receivership. That turnaround plan was drafted by Commissioner Hal Payne and was approved out of committee without full board review by Commissioners whose authority to sit on the board was questionable. On the day of the Board meeting, BMHA counsel produced a copy of a Memorandum dated April 22, 2015 that indicated Judge John O’Donnell would dismiss Commissioner Mascia’s lawsuit. The court’s Order and Decision was filed on May 27, 2015, but Mascia was never made aware of the order, which would have triggered his right to appeal. That summary judgment stated that the court had granted dismissal of the petition on a rationale inconsistent with legal norms.
A kangaroo court
The BMHA Board filed charges against Mascia and referred them to the Mayor. Mayor Byron Brown suspended Mascia from the official performance of his duties and convened a hearing to justify his removal. Ann E. Evanko, an attorney with Hurwitz & Fine, a firm that does business with the city, was unilaterally selected to serve as hearing officer.
The public hearing on the removal of Mascia took place in a well secured courtroom on a top floor of the Buffalo City Court building the week prior to Christmas 2015 and the week prior to New Years Day. For the first time, in the history of New York State, a hearing was held to remove a tenant elected Commissioner of a Public Housing Authority (PHA).
Fortuitously, an informal opinion on whether a mayor had the authority to conduct such a hearing was published by the New York State Attorney General’s Office on August 4, 2015. That was the first time in the history of New York State that an opinion on the matter had been requested or published.
On that same day, August 4, 2015, Commissioner Donna Brown, as Chairperson of the BMHA Ethics Committee, forwarded a letter to Mayor Brown requesting that he hold such a hearing. In the 80 year existence of the BMHA, this was the first finding of the newly constituted Ethics Committee.
Several of the names on the city’s list of witnesses failed to appear to testify at the hearing, including Paul Christopher.
The Mascia Rule
At the Board of Commissioners’ December 17, 2015 meeting amendments to the authority’s bylaws were approved, which would have bared tenant elected commissioners either removed for cause or a violation of campaign finance law to run for reelection.
Those amendments were forwarded to the New York State Housing Commissioner for approval, but they were returned to the authority with modifications. The State rejected the idea that the authority could ban an elected official for running indefinitely. Also removed was the provision that a violation of campaign finance was would be grounds for disqualification.
Mayor Brown is responsible for BMHA mismanagement
The mismanagement of BMHA is staggering, but it comes as no surprise to tenants and neighbors — who have had to live with the horrid quality of life impacts that the mismanagement creates.
Fixing the problems shouldn’t be difficult from a governance perspective. Mayor Brown appoints five of seven board seats, giving him firm control over the authority, while residents only elect two commissioners to the board.
That governance model — which intended to give the Mayor firm control over the entity so that it would be easier to manage, has been abused with unabashed patronage and graft for decades.
As the authority continues to unravel, it will be difficult for the Mayor to claim that he didn’t know about the use of public resources for political purposes, the authority’s suspect contracting practices, misuse of funds, and the incompetence of senior managers. He has appointed his closest friends to the board.
Michael Seaman is the chairman of BMHA’s board of commissioners. He is also the Brown Administration’s Treasurer. He meets with the Mayor almost daily. Hal Payne is an administrator at Buffalo State College and knows Brown since he attended the College. Donna Brown is the former Deputy Mayor. Alan Core is a pastor related to Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes. The Assemblywoman’s husband works at BMHA as a crime coordinator. Dawn Sanders-Garrett, the Executive Director, is Crystal Peoples-Stokes’ protégé.
The appointments that the Mayor has made are not professionals with a career’s worth of experience pertaining to housing, property management, development, finance, or planning. They are politically connected and were chosen based on their closeness to the Mayor. When federal investigators roll into town and impose a federal receivership on the authority, it will be impossible for the Mayor to claim that he didn’t know what was happening inside.
Pictured: Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes at a reelection victory party following her defeat of former Senator Antoine Thompson in the 144th Assembly district; pictured with Mayor Byron W. Brown, her closest political ally, and the revered political operative G. Steven Pigeon. Last year she called for changes in state law that would allow the Mayor to appoint school board members.