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TEMPERS FLARE AS LEGISLATORS GRILL NAPLES

The Erie County Legislature's quizzing of Comptroller Nancy A. Naples ended on a peaceful note Friday, though it started on the wrong foot and erupted in finger-pointing and flared tempers on both sides.

Naples arrived promptly for the session's 10:30 a.m. start. Again she had her aides cart in more than a dozen boxes of records to show the Finance and Management Committee and the public she's eager to provide information.

The eight Democrats who control the Legislature wanted to ask her why one Republican-leaning and politically connected financial manager has ended up with 80 percent of Erie County's bond underwriting business, even as that manager worked for three firms during Naples' 11 years in office.

They also wanted to air a laundry list of grievances.

But when lawmakers kept Naples and her aides waiting for 10 minutes, then 15, then 20, she'd had enough.

"We're leaving," she told the team, and they walked out, pausing for Naples to speak to reporters.

"They told me it was a very serious matter," she said of the lawmakers, who asked her to face the committee starting Wednesday and continuing Friday.

"They've paid no heed to past serious matters," she said, blaming legislators to a large degree for Erie County's financial crisis. "I have many more important things to do."

When word of Naples' looming departure reached the committee, members sped from their back rooms to gavel the meeting to a start. Naples left anyway, then she and the staff returned minutes later to take their seats.

Yet the committee ignored her for another 15 minutes.

Finally, Buffalo Democrat George A. Holt Jr., the Legislature's chairman, turned to Naples to ask how much in fees has been collected over the years by underwriting firms employing Paul Atanasio of New York City.

Holt referred to an April 6 report in The Buffalo News showing underwriting firms employing Atanasio had played a role in 14 of the 24 loans Naples has arranged, roughly three of every five and involving 80 percent of the amount borrowed.

Naples agreed with Holt's request to provide the answers later, in writing. But she also said she now provides him with much of the information he is seeking as loans are arranged.

"Are you asking me to give you this information again because you didn't read it?" she asked.

The committee's chairman, Buffalo Democrat Demone A. Smith, banged the gavel.

"We have to have a sense of professionalism to move forward," he insisted.

At one point, Buffalo Democrat Albert DeBenedetti started in with questions, but Naples wouldn't turn to look at him, still simmering over DeBenedetti's remarks during a recent Legislature meeting.

Naples asked that DeBenedetti pose his questions through Smith.

"Are you saying you won't answer his questions?" Smith asked.

"I believe he owes me an apology first," she said.

The session shed no new light on why Naples favors Atanasio's firm as an underwriter. She said the fact he's politically active and gives generously to Republican and Conservative causes has nothing to do with it. Every firm has people and political action committees giving to Democrats and Republicans, she said.

In interviews with The Buffalo News, she has explained that a level of comfort with Atanasio's decisions and a confidence in his ability play the largest role in her selections. She knows he's going to get the job done at what she believes will be the best interest rate the market can offer.

"I am sorry there is that appearance of impropriety," she told reporters. "But there are PACs with every investment bank, and they give equally to Republicans and Democrats ... unfortunately that's the way business is done on Wall Street."

The Legislature extends to Naples the authority to negotiate the best deal with an underwriter, rather than simply selecting the firm offering the lowest fee.

Lawmakers are discussing whether to remove her authority to negotiate, forcing her to simply choose the cheapest offer. Naples says taxpayers would be poorly served because the underwriter then isn't expected to adjust the deal if the bond market changes or problems arise.

The conversation veered toward the government's poor financial health, with Naples warning it will be out of cash in June or July without another short-term loan.

"Every letter that I send over here has been ignored," she said, saying the situation will worsen since the 2005 budget is out of balance by at least $14 million. "I think weeks from now it's going to be like you are sitting on the deck of the Titanic and saying to me, 'Nancy, where's all this water coming from?' "

In time, the sparring ended. Holt, who often plays the role of peacemaker, tried to emphasize that all county officials need to work together to steer the government out of its mess.

"We have to sit down together. We must take an aggressive approach for the constituents," he said.

With that, Naples had no quarrel.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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