Casey Bortnick

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Is Somebody Impersonating A Buffalo Assemblywoman?

I was warned when I moved to the Buffalo market in 2012, that Erie County politics was a different breed of politics.  I never fully understood that until this week.

On Wednesday night, I posted a blog about recorded racially charged comments made by a Buffalo Common Council Candidate and elected member of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority Board.  One of the people this man criticized was State Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes.

Our staff at Time Warner Cable News Buffalo reached out to her on a cell phone number we’ve had on file for her for some time.  It’s a number we’ve used in the past to set up interviews and get reaction from the Assemblywoman.

A woman who answered a call on this number identifying herself as Crystal Peoples-Stokes offered this statement to one of our staff members:

“We’re all guilty of it sometimes.  It was behind closed doors and he didn’t know he was being recorded.”

I wasn’t expecting the comment but thought perhaps the Assemblywoman wanted to promote forgiveness.  Since she provided no other statement that night I used it in my blog.

Thursday I learned the Assemblywoman’s staff was not happy with the statement which isn’t unusual.  After sleeping on it sometimes reactions change and adjusted statements are not unprecedented.

Here’s where things get unusual.  Through a post in the comment section of my blog, a member of Peoples-Stokes’ staff offered this motivation for the change:

“Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes never spoke to Time Warner Cable News regarding Joe Mascia and never made the above statement to anyone,” said Peoples-Stokes Deputy Chief of Staff Leah Halton-Pope. “To avoid inaccurately reporting the news, I would recommend that those who wish to get a direct quote, contact her or her staff directly,” Halton-Pope suggested.

A Peoples-Stokes staffer also called our Buffalo newsroom and not only claimed that Time Warner Cable News never spoke to the Assemblywoman, but that the cell phone number our organization had used to set up interviews with her in the past was never associated with the Assemblywoman.  When provided with an opportunity to update the Assemblywoman’s statement we were told she would hold media availability Thursday afternoon.

At that press briefing, Peoples-Stokes’ reaction was in stark contrast to the previous quote:

“It’s that sort of hate speech that just doesn’t bode well for a society that’s growing more and more in the direction of people of color. The numbers don’t lie, it’s something that we have to deal with in reality,” said Peoples-Stokes.

We asked the Assemblywoman directly if she spoke with a member of our staff Wednesday evening.  She told us she did not, and that she was asleep at that time.

Our phone logs show that we spoke with a woman identifying herself as Peoples-Stokes at the previous contact number at 6:28 p.m.

It wouldn’t be unprecedented for someone to be misquoted by the media.  I’ve been told by political staffers that we took someone’s comments out of context once or twice.

I’ve never heard this one before… strange stuff.

Civic Activist Recorded Calling Buffalo Mayor Racial Slur

An elected Commissioner of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and Buffalo Common Council Candidate is under fire after being recorded calling Buffalo’s Mayor and the Common Council President the “N-word.”  Just minutes after the audio recording was released by the Buffalo News Joe Mascia asked for forgiveness.

“It’s something that should’ve never been said. I’m hurt.  I feel I’ve hurt people that have had confidence in me and people that I’ve served for nine years and I respect and love,” Mascia said.

Mascia, who’s now 70, is running for a seat on the Common Council as a Democrat in a three-way primary.  He was elected to the BMHA Board of Commissioners in 2006, by a constituency that Mascia describes as 90 percent minority.

“The people who know me, the people who I’ve served and the people in the community that are my friends know that this is not something that’s normal for me,” said Mascia.

The recording, which Mascia believes was made several months ago by a colleague with a cell phone, was obtained by Time Warner Cable News, Wednesday night.  He suggested that employee, Paul Christopher, baited him into making the remarks in a moment of anger.

“The timing of this is kind of unusual but I’m not making any excuses for what I did and what I said. People can say what they want and they can accuse me of a lot of things. One thing they can’t accuse me of is being a bigot or a racist,” Mascia said.

But for Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and Common Council President Darius Pridgen the remarks speak for themselves.  Neither seemed ready to forgive Mascia.

“Clearly if Mr. Mascia can’t deny making these statements, he should immediately resign his elected position as a Commisioner of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority,” said Brown in statement.

Pridgen, who expressed his anger on social media early Tuesday evening, told Time Warner Cable News reporter Ryan Whalen he was blindsided by the remarks.

“At this point of this interview I would rather resign as the Ellicott District Council Member if this man and his team came to City Hall because all of the council members who are there right now have worked hard to bring inclusion and diversity to this city,” Pridgen said.

State Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes was also criticized in the recording.  She was one of the few who seemed willing give Mascia a pass.

“We’re all guilty of it sometimes.  It was behind closed doors and he didn’t know he was being recorded,” Peoples-Stokes said.

Mascia said he’s reached out to Brown and Pridgen to offer a personal apology.  As a long time activist for equal housing in the African-American community Mascia hopes his record will speak louder than his “hurtful” words.

“I feel I can still serve my constituents.  If I hear from the people who I represent and have represented for nine years that they don’t want me to represent them, well that’s a different story,” Mascia added.

Panepinto Denies Ethics Violations

A Buffalo-area state senator is pushing back against a New York Daily News report accusing him of a potential ethics violation.  The newspaper is reporting that Democrat Marc Panepinto tried to lobby a state agency to change policies that could have potentially benefited his private law firm, Dolce Panepinto.

Shortly after he took office in January, Panepinto reportedly lobbied the state Workers Compensation Board to abandon plans to alter or reduce reimbursement rates paid to doctors and other medical service providers.  According to the Daily News report, Panepinto’s law firm “specializes in Workers Compensation cases and recovered more than $8.5 million for injured workers in just the first few months of 2015.”

“The regulations apply to how much insurance carriers are required to pay the physicians who participate in the NYS Workers’ Comp system and therefore how many physicians are financially able to help injured workers get the care and treatment they deserve and need to get back to work,” Panepinto said in a Statement Monday.

Panepinto certainly wasn’t alone in opposing the changes other elected officials, activists and members of organized labor did so as well.  A Panepinto spokesperson disputed the paper’s use of the term “lobbyist” and Panepinto strongly denied any conflict of interest.

“My law firm does not do any lobbying and neither to my knowledge do the other law firms, doctors offices, hospitals who fought these harmful regulatory changes,” said Panepinto.

Panepinto has been a favorite target for the GOP.  While calling for the Senator to “come clean,” Erie County Republican Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy reminded the public of Panepinto’s 2001 misdemeanor election fraud conviction for collecting false signatures on nominating petitions.

“His Senate staff dodged reporters’ questions, but Panepinto can’t dodge his constituents. Residents of his district deserve to know: Did he seek approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission, as required, before he moved to lobby for his law firm and their labor pals?” Langworthy asked.

Panepinto was elected in 2014 with strong backing from labor unions.  Despite Langworthy’s conclusions, Panepinto says he’s not backing away from those labor relationships.

“I ran for office in order to be an advocate for working people, as I have done throughout my life as a construction worker, labor organizer, father, attorney, and citizen,” Panepinto added.

Mayoral Control Dead in Buffalo, For Now

A limited extension of Mayoral control in New York City was not a good sign for a “Mayoral Intervention” plan for the Buffalo Public School District.  A Buffalo Assemblywoman, and ally of Speaker Carl Heastie, said the idea is dead for now.

“You see a city the size and the magnitude of New York City not getting what it really deserves, which is a much longer time to implement a system that’s been working for the children in a district,” said Crystal Peoples-Stokes.

In May, Peoples-Stokes drafted a two-year proposal that would allow the mayor to appoint a superintendent, and the nine member board of education. The Buffalo Public School District has had four superintendent’s in five years, and infighting over how a new leader should be chosen spurred Peoples-Stokes’ proposal.

“Buffalo gets nothing this year. That does not mean that we don’t come back for the fight,” Peoples-Stokes said.

Sensing many in Buffalo didn’t have the stomach for a full mayoral take-over, State Senator Marc Panepinto proposed “Mayoral Input.”  The Buffalo Democrat’s proposal would have allowed the mayor to appoint two additional at-large board members to five year terms.

“Mayoral control in the city of New York was a five year process, so if this is the first year of that process, let’s have a community dialogue about it. But clearly the pushback was that Buffalo stakeholders did not want it,” Panepinto said.

Panepinto knows this isn’t the last time the idea will be brought up.  He believes future discussion will be shaped by next year’s school board elections.

“I think what will inform what comes in the legislative package is what’s the makeup of that board. How’s the board going to get along with the new superintendent? I mean I really think this bill was pushed in response to the board majority’s negative interaction with their hand-picked superintendent,” said Panepinto.

With the current superintendent stepping down at the end of the month, whoever takes over will have unprecedented control over five city schools under a receivership model approved as part of this year’s state budget.  Some saw Peoples-Stokes’ measure as an alternative to that plan.

“I understand that she (Peoples-Stokes) felt frustrated and that she felt that something needed to be done that was bold and dynamic but I don’t think again that there was enough time and thought put into how to implement this law,” said BPS Board Member Crystal Peoples-Stokes.

Peoples-Stokes said she will consider changes and if more discussion and community input is what’s needed to get the bill through she’s willing to do it.

“The vast majority of people who I represent were interested in the bill as it was but if we can bring some more people to be willing to support it based on some other ideas then I’m willing to consider them,” Peoples-Stokes added.

Buffalo Mayor Says He’s Not Being Investigated

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown acknowledged he knows all three Western New York political figures involved in State Attorney General’s Office probe.  Brown told reporters Friday he was surprised by the raids and is in no way connected.

“I have been informed by law enforcement that I’m not involved in the investigation,” said Brown.

It’s still unclear exactly what state investigators were looking for when they raided the Buffalo condo of former Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Steve Pigeon, as well as the homes of former Buffalo Deputy Mayor Steve Casey and Chris Grant, the current Chief of Staff for Republican Congressman Chris Collins.

“Steve Casey certainly worked with me for a long period of time, very bright, very creative, and very hardworking and always found him to be of the highest integrity,” Brown said.

Those interviewed as part of the investigation say it centers around the Pigeon backed political action committee the WNY Progressive Caucus.  The PAC funded 2013 challenges to Democratic Party-endorsed candidates in several local races.

Erie County Board of Elections officials confirmed the investigation began with a complaint about critical mailers funded by the PAC.  Mayor Brown said he was surprised by the Thursday’s raids and said he wasn’t aware of any wrong doing.

“I have found Steve Pigeon to be very bright, very hardworking and a person of integrity,” said Brown.

Brown isn’t Pigeon’s only ally.  The former Party boss is a well known contributor to Governor Cuomo and sources confirmed Friday he hosted State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at his Buffalo condo to watch the Mayweather-Pacquiao title fight on May 2nd.

Heastie’s office did not respond to our request for a comment.

Casey and Grant’s connection to the WNY Progressive caucus is the subject of speculation but sources said the two were business partners in a firm that produced political mailers.  Casey secured the services of Buffalo attorney Rodney Personius Friday night.

“We have known of the investigation for 36 hours and await further word from law enforcement as to the nature of their inquiry.  They have assured us that they will be forthcoming,” said Personius.

Erie County Legislator Interviewed As Part of State Investigation Into Former Party Boss

It’s still unclear exactly what state investigators were looking for when they raided the Buffalo condo of former Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Steve Pigeon.  We do know that the NY Attorney General’s office is leading this probe and that one of his Democratic opponents has already been interviewed.

“Maybe October of last year, 2014, after the Moreland Commission was disbanded, I got a call from New York State Police for an interview,” said Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant.

Grant received the backing of the Erie County Democratic Committee in her race for re-election in 2013, but Pigeon’s Western New York Progressive Caucus produced several mailers critical of her.  In August 2013 she filed complaints with the Erie County Board of Elections and the now-disbanded Moreland Commission.

“They (investigators) were asking about why I believed I had been unfairly targeted, why Mr. Pigeon would spend so much money trying to unseat me and they asked to see some of the literature which I had,” Grant said.

Pigeon’s attorneys said the FBI is assisting the State Attorney General’s office with the investigation involving an inquiry into the PAC.  Pigeon’s legal team told Time Warner Cable News his client has offered full cooperation and he was disappointed by how the warrant was executed.

“I’m not sure how the press was alerted to this but we hope it’s not the Attorney General’s office.  That’s normally not how they work in these government investigations,” said Kevin Burke.

Investigators also searched the homes of former Buffalo Deputy Mayor Steve Casey and Chris Grant, the current Chief of Staff for Republican Congressman Chris Collins.  Betty Jean Grant had little to offer on that part of the investigation except that the three have been connected to each other in political circles.

“In my dealing with the WNY Progressive Caucus, neither Mr. Casey’s name nor Mr. Grant’s name ever came up and I didn’t see them contributing any money to that caucus either,” Grant said.  “They (investigators) never asked about Chris Grant or Steve Casey.  They focused mainly on Mr. Steve Pigeon and Senator Tim Kennedy,” Grant said.

Grant unsuccessfully challenged Kennedy in a 2012 Democratic Primary.  Campaign filings from 2013 showed Kennedy was a contributor to the Pigeon backed PAC.

This angered Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner and County Executive Mark Poloncarz.  The Democratic Committee endorsed Grant over Kennedy when she challenged him in another primary in 2014.

Zellner released a lengthy statement about Thursday’s raids:

“It is not appropriate for me to comment on an ongoing investigation, but it is my hope that if any laws have been broken, that the individuals involved should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.  (Pigeon, Casey and Chris Grant) have been adversaries of the Erie County Democratic Committee for more than a decade.  I am proud to continue in the tradition of former Chairman (Len) Lenihan, who initiated a new culture that puts transparency and ethics at the forefront of our local party. “

Lenihan, now an Erie County Board of Elections Commissioner, said the investigation started as the result of a complaint filed with the State Board of Elections by both Republican Commissioner Ralph Mohr and his predecessor Dennis Ward.  Ward is now a State Supreme Court Justice.

As far as Chris Grant, his current boss offered a short statement in response to his involvement in the investigation.

“Chris Grant will continue to voluntarily participate in the investigation and I expect a quick resolution to this inquiry,” said Congressman Chris Collins.

Reed Not Impressed With DEC Report On Fracking

The 2,000-page report on hydrofracking, released the Department of Environmental Conservation Wednesday, did little to change the mind of a Western New York Congressman. Republican Tom Reed has been an unapologetic supporter of fracking, and told Time Warner Cable News he’s not impressed with the DEC’s findings.

“That’s the best that New York State can do after seven years of studying this issue?” Reed asked.

The report, which takes more than 260,000 public comments into consideration, concludes there are major uncertainties about potential health and environmental risks associated with high-volume fracking.  Reed saw no evidence in the report that definitively proves fracking is harmful.

“Probably millions of dollars of taxpayer money going to research the issue and they come up with a qualitative maybe there’s an issue there? It begs the question, is this being done with science and data or is this being done for political purposes,” said Reed.

The report is seen as one of the final steps before Governor Cuomo makes a temporary moratorium on hydrofracking permanent.  Reed, whose 23rd Congressional District butts up against the Pennsylvania border and sits atop the Marcellus Shale, said the ban has put his district at a disadvantage.

“We’ve had family farmers in tears, multi-generational family farmers who were relying on the opportunity that would come from the development of the natural gas rights on their property and now they’re looking at me like how can I keep the farm?”

Despite the move that appears to be coming in Albany, Reed remains hopeful the impending ban can one day be lifted.

“I’m always the eternal optimist but I’m also very practical,” said Reed. “Clearly asking the Governor to reconsider this is not going to end in a result where he will, but I’m going on record on behalf of thousands of people in Western New York who own their property, who pay their taxes on their property,” Reed added.

On the other side, those in favor of banning fracking describe the DEC report as a victory over the gas drilling industry.

“This is a really proud moment for every one of them because protecting public health triumphed over industry pressure. There are thousands of pages of fine detail to sort through, and we know much work remains, like banning other states’ fracking waste from being dumped inside our borders,” said Water & Natural Resources Associate Liz Moran.

Buffalo Democrat Calls On Senate GOP To ‘Get Serious’ on SAFE Act

Freshman State Senator Marc Panepinto has had no problem drawing the attention of the GOP majority.  Even before Panepinto was elected, the SRCC sponsored an attack ad against him, and just last week his 13-year-old misdemeanor was invoked in the GOP’s defense of embattled State Senator Dean Skelos.

The Buffalo-area Democrat, who was more than happy to defend himself last week, went on the offensive Wednesday accusing Senate Republicans of falling short on promises to reform the controversial SAFE Act.

“For two years, they have danced around addressing any commonsense provisions within this flawed legislation that they brought to the Senate floor and passed under their majority in the Senate,” Panepinto said.

Panepinto has broken with his party and co-sponsored four pieces of legislation that would adjust the sweeping gun control law. Three of those measures would authorize the gifting of legally possessed firearms to family members through estate planning, expand the definition of “immediate family” in the law’s language, and make all personal information regarding pistol permit applications confidential except to law enforcement.

“While I have co-sponsored numerous bills to address these issues, it is no secret that only the Senate Republicans can allow these reforms to come to the Senate floor for an actual vote,” Panepinto said.

Despite voting for the SAFE Act, New Majority Leader John Flanagan told the Buffalo News he’d be open to changes to it.  The 2013 law is unpopular among conservatives in Western New York which includes Panepinto’s 60th State Senate District.

“That is why I am calling on Senate Republicans to get serious on reforming the SAFE Act and allow these meaningful proposals to be debated and addressed by the end of this session,” Panepinto added.

Fellow Western New York Senator Rob Ortt made the repeal of the SAFE Act a central part of his campaign.  Republican Pat Gallivan sponsored three of the changes Panepinto signed onto.

Neither was available for comment Wednesday night.

Western New York Conservatives Angered Over Flanagan Selection

Despite the fact the newly minted Senate Majority Leader’s son goes to the University at Buffalo, John Flanagan hasn’t exactly gotten a warm reaction from Western New York so far.  Senate Democrats, as you would expect, are less than enthused about the choice, while Conservatives are downright livid.

“Nothing good is going to happen for Upstate New York with this change,” said Buffalo-Area State Assemblyman David DiPietro.

DiPietro, a gun rights advocate, said Flanagan’s vote in favor of the SAFE Act alone should have disqualified him as a candidate for Senate Majority Leader.

“Totally upset that we’re going to get no movement from our own Republican Senate because the leader is pro-SAFE Act,” DiPiertro said.

The member of the Assembly with the most conservative voting record, Rochester-area Assemblyman Bill Nojay directed his ire at the reported five Upstate GOP Senators who voted for Flanagan over Syracuse-Area Senator John De Francisco.  Nojay took to Twitter to vent his frustrations.

“Q (question) for the 5 Upstate GOPers who voted for Flanagan: what price to sell your soul?  Biggest winner today in Senate: Andrew Cuomo. He got a RINO he can control.  Biggest loser: Upstate NY, which is now politically irrelevant,” Nojay wrote.

The vote for Senate Majority Leader happened behind closed doors but most Western New York Republicans told us they supported DeFrancisco, including Michael Ranzenhofer, Rich Funke, Robert Ortt and Joe Robach.

Ranzenhofer confirmed the SAFE Act was a part of the closed door conversation. Ortt, an Afghanistan War Veteran and consistent advocate for repealing the controversial gun control measure, seemed optimistic Flanagan will move to the right on the issue.

“I think Senator Flanagan knows he’s going to have to work toward that (repealing the SAFE Act) to be successful as a leader and I think he’s going to do that and I’m willing to work with him on that issue,” said Ortt.

“John Flanagan voted for the SAFE Act. The people from his district knew it and voted to send him back to Albany.  I think he respects the Second Amendment.  I don’t see it as an issue,” Robach added.

Watching from outside the GOP conference, Senate Democrats in WNY saw the move as a lifeline for Skelos to hold on to some kind of power.  Buffalo-Area Senator Marc Panepinto even suggested Skelos “extorted” his own conference.

“Dean Skelos threatened his colleagues on Friday and said if you don’t do John Flanagan I may resign my seat and that may put the leadership up for grabs,” Panepinto said.

Still, it’s the way Flanagan ascended to Majority Leader that bothers conservatives as much as the fact he’s there.  Several sources suggest it was two Upstate New Yorkers who sided with the “Long Island Nine” to tip the scales in Flanagan’s favor.

“It was Cathy Young and Mike Nozzolio who sold us out,” said Former GOP Gubernatorial Candidate and outspoken Skelos critic Carl Paladino.  “The votes are here (Upstate) and this is where the Majority Leader should come from.”

Senator Young did not reveal how she voted behind closed doors.  In a statement Monday night she would only say:

“Every single member of the Republican Conference united behind Senator John Flanagan to ensure balance in state government and safeguard the future of the state.”

Senator Mike Nozzoilo’s office said he was not available for comment Monday night.

“Senator’s Young and Nozzolio sold their soul,” DiPietro said.  “If one of them would have voted against him (Flanagan) we could have had a different leader.  I’ll tell you up here in the Assembly right now we’re just beside ourselves.  We feel like we’ve been sold down the river,” DiPietro added.



Panepinto Not Happy About GOP ‘Name Drop’ In Defense Of Skelos

State Senator Marc Panepinto and his supporters are firing back after the Buffalo-area Democrat was mentioned in a GOP defense of their initial decision not to replace Dean Skelos as Majority Leader.

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” Panepinto said.

In response to a failed Democratic effort to remove Skelos, a spokesperson for the Senate GOP Majority referenced Panepinto as an example of Democratic hypocrisy.

“They all seem to have extraordinarily short memories.  Just last year, Senators Stewart-Cousins and Gianaris chose a convicted criminal to run as their handpicked candidate for an important Western New York Senate seat and he is now a sitting member of their conference,” said Senate Republican Spokeswoman Kelly Cummings.

Panepinto was convicted of a misdemeanor election fraud violation in 2001.  He submitted voter signatures to the Board of Elections that turned out to be bogus and pleaded guilty to making false witness statements on petitions.

The Senate Republican Campaign Committee highlighted Panepinto’s past in a scathing and memorable TV ad.  Despite that, Panepinto was able to win a three way race for the 60th State Senate District.

“I made a mistake 14 years ago. I paid the price for it,” said Panepinto. “The Republicans paid $1 million to try to convince the voters of something they were unable to do. To compare what I did to bribery and extortion, an abuse of my public office as Dean Skelos has done, is ridiculous.”

Senate Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins weighed in during an interview with Capital Tonight’s Liz Benjamin:

“It’s not like we’re talking apples to apples here. This is a Freshman Senator who was newly elected by people who were familiar with the facts and it was a 14 year old conviction. So he’s not the leader of the Senate, he’s not the leader of a conference, so he’s not setting policy for the chamber,” Stewart-Cousins said.

Olean Republican Cathy Young, who’s been mentioned as a potential replacement for Skelos, was particularly critical of Panepinto during last fall’s election.  Something he apparently hasn’t forgotten.

“It’s particularly galling that Senator Young, who was the head of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, raised tens of millions of dollars from the real estate interests in New York City, and called immediately for Shelly Silver’s ouster, is still embracing Dean Skelos as Majority Leader.  That level of cowardice and hypocrisy cannot go unchallenged” Panepinto said.

Panepinto questioned how Young and others could continue to support Skelos while Erie County GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy and GOP Gubernatorial Candidate Rob Astorino are calling for a change.

Young released a statement Tuesday supporting Skelos claiming a sudden change in leadership would disrupt the legislative process as the end of session draws near.