The sleepy contest for county executive awoke with a start Tuesday as Republican candidate Raymond W. Walter accused his incumbent opponent of hiding a state probe into the county Department of Public Works.
He and other Republican officials suggested that Democratic County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s boast of running a “clean administration” might be an empty one.
But Poloncarz dismissed the allegation – raised on the eve of Wednesday’s televised debate between the two candidates – by explaining he was the one who initially launched the investigation into potential bid rigging and collusion by contractors and county public works employees.
“My administration found the problems,” Poloncarz said. “My administration turned our findings over to the Attorney General’s Office and the New York State Department of Transportation. And my administration doesn’t tolerate this kind of stuff.”
The office of Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman – which Walter suggested may have helped cover up any investigation – issued a rare public statement to deny that any probe is ongoing, contrary to a published report based on anonymous sources. Instead, Schneiderman spokesman Nick Benson pointed out that after questions raised by Poloncarz almost two years ago were investigated, they were dismissed as lacking grounds for criminal charges.
“After a thorough review, and with the full support and cooperation of County Executive Poloncarz,” Benson said, “our office closed the case with no further action.”
The attorney general’s statement contradicted the Walter claim that a state investigation was currently in progress, which he based on a Tuesday report in City and State magazine.
“We know an investigation is going on; it’s been reported,” Walter claimed at a hastily called news conference Tuesday afternoon in Erie County Republican Headquarters.
When asked if he knew for sure an investigation was ongoing, he replied: “I know what I read in the article.”
Walter also suggested Schneiderman was working with Poloncarz to cover up a probe he said had been kept “secret.”“Is he protecting a political ally?” Walter said. “He very well may be.”
The sharpest exchanges of the campaign so far began Tuesday afternoon when City and State, a magazine that covers politics and government in New York State, cited several sources as indicating a probe of the DPW is under way; versions of the story updated on line later in the day reported the investigation had been closed.
“Why has Mark Poloncarz kept this criminal investigation of a key department in his administration a secret, while touting he has run a scandal-free administration?” Walter asked. “Does he have something to hide? The people of Erie County need to know the answer to three questions: What did Mark Poloncarz know? When did he know it? And why does he think taxpayers don’t deserve to know when our money and resources are on the line?”
Poloncarz seemed more than willing to answer those questions as soon as Walter’s news conference was over.
He stated that allegations of improprieties involving the Department of Public Works first surfaced when he was county comptroller in 2011.
At that time, the county was working on the first phases of a $7.5 million road project involving the reconstruction of Eden Evans Center Road. The Controller’s Office heard rumors of improperly awarded contracts and work orders.
After taking office as county executive in 2012, Poloncarz’s administration continued to investigate the allegations and pulled together five troubling findings by the end of that year. He said his administration determined the Department of Public Works:
• Failed to competitively bid the project in accordance with state law.
• Failed to submit awarded contracts to the County Legislature for approval, as required.
• Appeared to submit “falsified, manipulated invoices” by outside contractors working in collusion with county workers.
• Submitted false certifications and improper claims for $2.5 million in state grant reimbursements.
• Improperly and/or illegally engaged contractors who performed work on phases I and II of the county road reconstruction project.
Those findings, along with all evidence gathered, were submitted in January 2013 to the Attorney General’s Office and the state Department of Transportation with a request by the county attorney for further investigation into whether there was any definitive proof of criminal wrongdoing, Poloncarz said.
The county executive also said he didn’t know why the investigation took so long or even if it is still continuing. He only knew that members of the Department of Public Works were interviewed by investigators from the Attorney General’s Office early this year.
Poloncarz said he didn’t further pursue the investigation himself, or publicize it, because he didn’t want to influence or compromise the Attorney General’s investigation, he said, and he didn’t want it to appear as if he was “kicking dirt” on defeated Republican incumbent Chris Collins.
Poloncarz noted that he changed the top leadership of the Department of Public Works after he took over, though the change was not precipitated by the probe.
To his knowledge, he said, no one in the department has been disciplined or fired for improprieties related to the Eden Evans Center Road project because the Attorney General’s Office has issued no finding of criminal conduct, and the county did not have definitive proof of wrongdoing.
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