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NAPLES TO EXPLAIN PROCESS FOR CHOOSING BOND UNDERWRITERS

Comptroller Nancy A. Naples says she'll explain to Erie County lawmakers, on their turf, how she selects bond underwriters -- a discussion expected to lead to questions about why she has given 80 percent of the business to one politically connected financial manager.

Naples' staff tells Legislature aides she'll arrive Wednesday with a cadre of key personnel and a trove of documents to, according to a statement, "educate county legislators on this important aspect of municipal finance."

Naples last week said she was willing to answer questions for the Legislature, which gives her the authority to negotiate bond deals by reaffirming a provision in state law. But she said she wanted to meet in her office.

Lawmakers, noting the comptroller reports to them, responded by saying they expected her to sit before the Finance and Management Committee during a public meeting in Old County Hall. Committee Chairman Demone A. Smith, D-Buffalo, had said he would schedule a special meeting if necessary, and he and others implied they would subpoena Naples if she failed to show.

On Monday, a statement from Naples' office said she would attend the panel's regular meeting at 10 a.m. Wednesday. "The comptroller hopes that all county legislators will be present," it said.

Since Naples took office in 1994, the county has borrowed roughly $1.4 billion -- 80 percent of it through the services of underwriting firms employing Paul Atanasio of New York City.

Atanasio is a Conservative Party activist who maintains a close friendship with party Chairman Michael R. Long and donates generously to Republican causes.

Erie County's business followed Atanasio as he moved through three firms over the past 11 years.

Since 1994, roughly three of every five Erie County bond deals have gone to firms employing Atanasio. Naples calls him "extremely well-qualified and respected in his field."

Atanasio's mother in Queens County also gave $1,000 to Naples' re-election campaign in 2001, though underwriters are barred from donating directly or through conduits to officials they do business with, unless they can vote for them. Even then, donations cannot exceed $250.

To date, Naples has not provided The Buffalo News with records sought under New York's Freedom of Information Law to determine whether she always selected the most economical deal. The News asked for the documents March 10, but Naples said she lacks the staff to process the request.

Erie County's cash difficulties makes this a busy year for borrowing. In March, the county borrowed $80 million for short-term cash to pay bills. But it's expected to borrow another $170 million by year's end, all for short-term operating expenses.

In addition, Naples and Budget Director Joseph Passafiume are discussing attempts to hurry this year's borrowing for capital projects because she won't be able to pay upfront costs with operating dollars, as in past years.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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