Casey Bortnick

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Erie County Executive Not Worried About Dismal Primary Turnout

Anyone who follows politics will tell you voter turnout in a primary election is typically low, but Thursday’s 7.5 percent voter turnout in the Buffalo-area was among the lowest in recent memory.

“It was historically low.  I don’t know if it broke an all-time record but again a lot of this is attributed to the fact there wasn’t a major race on top of the ticket,” said Erie County Elections Commissioner Len Lenihan.

There were certainly distractions, like the opening night of the NFL in a sports crazed city,  not to mention the movement of the Primary to a Thursday to avoid conflicting with Rosh Hashanah.

“People aren’t used to voting on Thursday.  They’re used to voting on Tuesdays,” Lenihan added.

On the other hand, one of the most well-publicized Buffalo Common Council races featured a candidate whose racist remarks drew the ire of the public for weeks.  Even with embattled Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority Board member Joe Mascia trying to secure the Democratic line, barely more than a thousand votes were cast.

“It’s hard to imagine a turnout that low in frankly a race that was pretty well-publicized,” said Lenihan.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is counting on a much better voter turnout in the Fillmore District and the rest of the city in November.  His challenger, Republican State Assemblyman Ray Walter, is expected to perform well in his home suburb of Amherst and other historically GOP leaning towns and villages.

“Four years ago, my opponent, the incumbent said there’s no way they’re going to get the turnout that they think they need in the city of Buffalo and we far surpassed that in the turnout,” said Poloncarz.

Despite the dismal primary numbers, Lenihan believes the County Executive’s race will draw more voters in places like Buffalo’s Fillmore district to the polls.

“It’s a major community-wide office that people are interested in, that will stimulate the turnout,” Lenihan added.

 

Update: WNY Assemblywoman Turns Over Cell Phone And Computer Records As Part Of Sexual Harassment Probe

New details Thursday, in the sexual harassment and retaliation investigation of a Western New York Assemblywoman.  The attorney for Cheektowaga Republican Angela Wozniak says they have taken steps to cooperate with a preliminary investigation by the Assembly Ethics Committee.

Buffalo-based attorney Steven Cohen told Time Warner Cable News Reporter Ryan Whalen, who broke the story last week, that Wozniak has turned over her cell phone, email and copies of all her hard drives to the Ethics Committee.

“Assemblywoman Wozniak has said she’s got nothing to fear and she’s directed me just to cooperate in turning over all of the evidence so we did that today,” Cohen said.

The committee has assigned an independent law professor, Merrick Rossein from the City University of New York, to conduct the interviews in the investigation.  Cohen said Wozniak will be interviewed last, September 28th.

Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak, Former Wozniak Staffer Elias Farah

Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak, Former Wozniak Staffer Elias Farah

Cohen told several media sources that Wozniak’s former Legislative Director Elias Farah filed the complaint.  Farah, who declined comment, ran for Erie County Legislature in 2013.  Sources have told Time Warner Cable News that Wozniak and Farah did have a sexual relationship, although Cohen would not confirm that.

“I too find it hard to believe that any credible complaint could be made against this assemblywoman to be intimidating or harassing anyone,” said Cohen.  “She (Wozniak) and her husband are bearing under the embarrassment of these kinds of allegations but both of them are confident that they’re going to get through this,” said Cohen.

Cohen expressed frustration with the Ethics Committee’s process.  He said he was never given a copy of the complaint or even told initially who made it.

“I have represented members of the United States Congress, military commanders in ethics investigations and never before have I not been given the charges that have been placed against my client and never before have I been told that I’m not allowed to investigate it.” Cohen said.

Cohen has said repeatedly he’s not only working to clear Wozniak’s name but he’s also preserving evidence for a defamation suit against Farah.

“If it is determined that this was a complaint made with actual malice, we will seek to bring the complainant to justice through the courts,” said Cohen.

Wozniak has made no public appearances since allegations surfaced last month.  Cohen made it clear she is continuing to represent her district and will be addressing the allegations soon.

“Once the Assembly Investigation Committee, Ethics Committee, unties my hands we would look forward to a press conference and we would look forward to commenting on everything,” Cohen added.

Wozniak was elected in 2014 to the 143rd seat vacated by Democrat Dennis Gabryszak who retired.  Several of Gabryszak’s former staffers accused him of sexual harassment.

Update: Assembly Ethics Committee Investigates Sexual Harassment Complaint Against WNY Assemblywoman

Last week we learned a Western New York Assemblywoman had hired an attorney following what her lawyer described as “unsubstantiated accusations” made by a former male staffer.  Wednesday we learned more about those accusations and how they’re being investigated.

Time Warner Cable News Buffalo is reporting the Assembly Ethics Committee has started a preliminary investigation into a sexual harassment claim against Cheektowaga Republican Angela Wozniak.  Sources tell Ryan Whalen, Wozniak and others have been scheduled for interviews as part of the committee’s probe.

Buffalo-based attorney Steve Cohen is representing Wozniak.  Cohen said last week he was not only working to clear Wozniak’s name but he was also preserving evidence for a defamation suit against Wozniak’s accuser.

Wednesday, he acknowledged there is an investigation.

“We can confirm that there has been an accusation brought against the Assemblywoman.  We are now looking forward to cooperating with the investigation to clear her good name.  Once that is accomplished, we will turn our attention to bringing her accuser to justice.  There are consequences for bringing malicious false accusations,” said Cohen.

Cohen reiterated that he has not received any formal charges against his client.  The chairman of the Assembly Ethics Committee would not confirm or make any comment about the investigation.

The Assembly Ethics Committee is an eight-member bi-partisan committee that includes two Western New York Republicans, Joe Giglio of Gowanda and Peter Lawrence from Greece.

Wozniak was elected in 2014 to the 143rd seat vacated by Democrat Dennis Gabryszak who retired.  Several of Gabryszak’s former staffers accused him of sexual harassment.

WNY Assemblywoman Hires Attorney To Defend Against ‘Unsubstantiated Accusations’

21537471_BF Angela Wozniak 143rd Assembly Candidate VO 102914kl  - 00005019

A Western New York assemblywoman has hired an attorney to defend against what are being described as malicious accusations. Buffalo-area attorney Steven Cohen told Time Warner Cable News reporter Ryan Whalen Friday night he’s representing Cheektowaga Republican Angela Wozniak after she learned a man was making unspecified claims against her.

Time Warner Cable News has been following this story for several weeks now, and has learned from multiple sources that the individual making the accusations is a former Wozniak staffer. Cohen said to his knowledge there has been no formal complaint, and neither he nor Wozniak have been provided with any details regarding any charges lodged against her.

“Consistent with good ethical practice we are taking steps to preserve any and all evidence that anybody might be interested in looking at in order to clear Angela’s good name,” Cohen said. “To the extent that this individual is spreading falsehoods with actual malice against Assemblywoman Wozniak, we intend to bring a defamation suit.”

Wozniak is under 30 years old, and considered in political circles to be a rising star in Western New York’s Republican party. She won the 143rd Assembly Seat in 2014 after it was vacated by Democrat Dennis Gabryszak, who retired amid allegations of sexual harassment against a number of female staffers.

Rubio Pads Campaign Coffers in Buffalo

It was a successful visit to Western New York for GOP presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, Tuesday night. The Florida senator was briefly in the Queen City for a private campaign fundraiser, and left with a pretty hefty contribution to his campaign coffers.

“We did very well,” said former ambassador and prominent Republican fundraiser Anthony Gioia.

Gioia hosted Rubio during a similar visit a year ago. He told Time Warner Cable News Reporter Ryan Whalen that this time around, more than $200,000 was raised even before the private dinner at a home in Amherst began.

“We were very happy not just with the cash raised but that everyone had a nice time,” Gioia said.

Tickets for the event were $1,000 and $2,700 for a photo with the candidate. A select few who raised $25,000 or more for the campaign got a chance to sit down and eat with Rubio.

“He’s the personification of the American dream, his knowledge of foreign affairs, his knowledge of intelligence is just outstanding.  He’s the best communicator in either party, he’s the most knowledgeable,” Gioia said.

Rubio spent more than three hours taking photos with guests, and also made a speech. He spoke in general about his platform and took some questions. Earlier in the day, Rubio spent some time touring the New Era headquarters in downtown Buffalo.

Rubio isn’t the only GOP hopeful to garner some support in Western New York.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush held a fundraising event earlier this year.  Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino hosted an event for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry last September, and Donald Trump drew large crowds during a visit as a potential gubernatorial candidate back in January of 2014.

Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy was at the Rubio fundraiser with his wife, but he also made the trip to Wisconsin when Gov. Scott Walker announced his presidential bid last month. Langworthy said he hopes to bring Walker to Western New York, too.

Despite the competition and his modest numbers so far in the polls, Rubio’s supporters feel good about their chances.

“Marco knows what he’s doing. When you look at the true candidates I think Marco’s in a good position. We were talking about that in the car. We’re right where we want to be,” Gioia added.

Political Fight Over Rochester Photonics Center Gets Heated

It’s been called Rochester’s “Buffalo Billion.” But a political fight over where to headquarter a $600-million photonics center is threatening to over shadow what could be a major economic boost for the area.

“I agree this has been unseemly over the last week or so,” said State Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle. “But we felt it was important at the outset to make certain that the University of Rochester, RIT and the Rochester Community are full partners in this effort,” Morelle said.

Last month, Vice President Joe Biden joined Governor Cuomo in announcing the federal Department of Defense chose Rochester as the site of the Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation. All involved agreed the headquarters for the center should be in Downtown Rochester, but there was disagreement about exactly where to put it.

While Morelle and the co-chairs of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council preferred the Rochester’s historic Sibley Building, Rochester business leaders and the President of SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany seemed to prefer the former Bausch + Lomb building now known as the Legacy Tower.

“The one thing we were troubled by, was decisions being made unilaterally by SUNY Poly in Albany about what facilities in Rochester would be used as part of this photonics center,” said Morelle

That decision seemed to come on Monday when the college announced a deal to lease 25,000 square feet of space in the aforementioned Legacy Tower. Despite complaints from Morelle and others, SUNY Polytechnic explained as the DOD contract designee, it had the power to make the decision.

University of Rochester President Joel Seligman told Time Warner Cable News Reporter Breanna Fuss, Tuesday, the announcement was “premature.”

“Let me put it this way, it was unnecessary and awkward,” Seligman said.

Seligman, believing the two colleges are “50-50” partners, said both institutions have now agreed more discussion and study is needed before they make a final decision on a site for the headquarters.

“This not necessarily the way I wanted to reach this outcome but I look forward to working with (SUNY Polytechnic Institute President) Dr. Alain Kaloyeros and the governor’s office,” Segilman said.

In a statement, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter was not so careful in her criticism of the announcement and of Kaloyeros himself.

“This dispute is not about office space. It’s about leadership of the photonics center and that Rochester-area leaders should decide where the headquarters is located. I worked for three years to achieve this and we will not be deterred by one man’s ego,” Slaughter said.

But Kaloyeros and his college’s previous choice of the Legacy Tower has powerful support as well. The President of the Rochester Business Alliance, former Lt. Governor Bob Duffy released a statement Monday supporting that option.

Tuesday afternoon, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and the University of Rochester released a joined statement saying they were on the same page and the final site for the center still has not be chosen. Morelle credits the Governor’s office for the reversal.

“I think the Governor’s office was very involved this afternoon bringing folks together and I’m grateful to them for helping us move forward on a very, very important project that we’re hopefully moving forward together on,” said Morelle.

Despite the renewed optimism, a source told Time Warner Cable News, Tuesday, the plan to move the photonics headquarters to the Legacy Tower is moving forward. Morelle acknowledged the public concern this fight has created could jeopardize the project, but remains confident it will get done.

“I think today’s joint announcement between president Seligman and Dr. Kaloyeros now paves the way for us to get down to the really important business of working on the economic transformation for Rochester,” Morelle added.

 

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.