Proof lacking as Tolbert cites complaints of ‘pay to play’ on promotions - The Buffalo News

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Proof lacking as Tolbert cites complaints of ‘pay to play’ on promotions

Democrat Bernard A. Tolbert labels his mayoral campaign as the “Takin’ It to the Streets” tour, a novel approach allowing citizens to periodically air their grievances against incumbent Byron W. Brown.

As part of challenging Brown in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary, the former head of the FBI’s Buffalo office has produced neighborhood residents to complain about blight in city parks, or police union officials contending that crime statistics are manipulated – even if, in some instances, he acknowledges a lack of proof.

Monday, Tolbert introduced another new supporter from his streets tour who said his failure to be promoted to the position of crime analyst in the Police Department stems from a Brown administration policy of “pay to play” that requires campaign donations and activity.

“If you make it with this current administration, you have to play along with the game that is played,” said Timothy J. Strunk, an Iraq War veteran and current police dispatcher who said he has been turned down four times for promotion despite top civil service test scores and a master’s degree in forensic science.

“If you don’t have the ‘juice,’ you get nothing,” he added.

“Multiple people,” Strunk said, have confirmed to him that those who are promoted must also “press the flesh” on the mayor’s behalf and buy $100 tickets to fundraisers.

Again, however, neither Tolbert nor Strunk produced proof of the accusations. That spurred mayoral spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge to criticize Tolbert’s continuing tactic of allowing people to accuse without evidence.

“It’s a desperate candidate making false accusations for political gain,” DeGeorge said. “Tolbert is running a reckless and irresponsible campaign, and the voters deserve better.”

Strunk was joined at Tolbert’s campaign headquarters by William J. Gambino, a Police Benevolent Association vice president who said he was passed over for promotion to lieutenant because of his union activity. His appearance marks the second time the police union – which has endorsed the challenger – has joined Tolbert at a press event that raised questions about police practices.

And while he could also not corroborate any of Strunk’s contentions, Gambino said City Hall stymies any attempt he makes to obtain data for union actions.

“We try to get this stuff from this administration, and they create hurdles for you,” Gambino said. “It’s an ongoing practice by the Brown administration. As far as any kind of transparency is concerned, there isn’t any.”

Strunk said he was not endorsing Tolbert for mayor but offered to appear Monday after he heard Brown emphasize his concern about public safety during his own campaign.

“That was the tipping point for me,” he said. “I had to speak out about the improper hiring practices based on political patronage over the best person for the job.

“I served to remove a despot,” he added of his Iraq experience. “Why did I come back here to be treated like this?”

Strunk said that he has filed no legal action because he cannot afford a lawyer but contended that the mayor’s political supporters continue to be favored for promotion, though he acknowledged he could not offer proof.

Tolbert emphasized that no political considerations would ever be allowed in his administration. “I will promote professionalism – hiring the best and the brightest, not the friendliest or most politically connected – in direct accordance with civil service guidelines,” he said.

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda dismissed Strunk’s accusations as having “absolutely no merit,” adding that all civil service laws and requirements were followed in his case. He emphasized that while education, experience and civil service test scores weigh heavily in consideration for promotion, factors such as polygraph tests and background checks are also part of the process.

“It is my understanding … that issues came up in this individual’s background process,” he said, declining to be specific.

Tolbert also declined to cite anything specific about Strunk’s accusations but said the idea of his campaign is to allow citizens such as him to discuss their cases and then let voters come to their own conclusions. He said he is continually receiving emails from citizens “asking for help,” even claiming credit for the city’s cleanup of Johnson Park after he allowed neighbors to air their complaints.

“We help them present a story,” he said. “I am not personally judging the merits of it.”

Tolbert said he believes that Strunk should have received “consideration” for a promotion, acknowledging he has no knowledge of similar political favoritism on a “widespread basis.” But the concept behind “Takin’ It to the Streets,” Tolbert said, is to let citizens air their grievances. “If you have an issue that needs to be discussed, let us know about it,” he said. “It’s something others might want to be aware of.”


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