An insurance agency that employs Niagara County Republican Chairman John J. Long is expected to receive a $21,000 contract to insure Sheriff's Department helicopters despite questions from Democrats.
If Long has an interest in the contract, "It's an obvious violation of the code of ethics," charged Legislator Robert L. Seger, D-North Tonawanda.
And if not, said Legislator John W. Cole III, D-Lockport, "It's not unethical, it's just politics as usual."
United Insurance Agency's Niagara Falls office is seeking to be the broker for the helicopter policy. The office once was owned by Long under the name of Long & Rieger.
The County Legislature's Human Resources Committee unanimously approved a resolution March 23 granting the business to United if Long supplies an affidavit that he has no interest in the business and will not make money in any way from the policy, including company profit-sharing.
"I sold out in 1984. I work strictly on commission. . . . I've never had a salary. I have not had an ownership or management interest since the mid-1980s," Long said.
As for the helicopter policy, "I had nothing to do with it," he said.
United's Niagara Falls office has handled the helicopter insurance for the past three years, according to agent Timothy Mehary, who said he, not Long, has handled the account.
"He's an agent, just like me," Mehary said. "I've had these aircraft (policies) since the county originally got them."
But some Democrats don't accept that. Legislator Bradley E. Erck, D-Lockport, said regardless of any statements by Long, he intends to present the case to the county Board of Ethics if the full Legislature approves the United policy April 7.
"The Republicans are ethically challenged," Erck said. "If it doesn't violate the letter of the code (of ethics), it certainly violates the spirit. . . . It sends the wrong message to the public. It shows that the big bosses are running the show."
The code was amended in January to bar executive officers of political parties from contracting with the county to provide services or products.
County risk and insurance manager Nancy J. Sheehan said she checked with County Attorney Edward P. Perlman as to whether giving the contract to United would violate the code.
"That's not what you have here," Perlman said. "Long didn't get a penny from it."
United and Hollis-Boss Agency of Grand Island both are offering a premium of $21,000 for one year. The actual insurer is AIG Aviation.
The Democrats' antennae went up at the March 17 Legislature meeting when a resolution to give the contract to Hollis-Boss was withdrawn at the request of Legislator Gerald R. DeFlippo, R-Lockport, chairman of the Human Resources Committee.
The award to Hollis-Boss had been approved at a March 9 Human Resources Committee meeting. When Erck asked why it was being withdrawn, DeFlippo replied that United had come in with the same bid.
"If they switched carriers, there must be a problem," said Seger. "My understanding was that (Long) did have an interest."
"We weren't dealing with Mr. Long," DeFlippo said, explaining he wanted to give the contract to a Niagara County company. He noted the $21,000 price is $5,250 less than the county paid last year.
Seger said he understood DeFlippo to say that United had matched the Hollis-Boss quote after finding it was lower than theirs, but DeFlippo said United did not get two chances to bid.
Mehary said he submitted the $21,000 offer Feb. 16, two days before the deadline Ms. Sheehan set. Ms. Sheehan confirmed that, saying she asked United, Hollis-Boss and a third agency for quotes.
However, on March 17, DeFlippo said United "matched" the Hollis-Boss offer. In an interview after that meeting, he said United had done so after the deadline.
A resolution granting the contract to United appeared on the Feb. 23 Human Resources Committee agenda, but it was tabled. DeFlippo said, "I think Nancy (Sheehan) was looking at that ethics thing. She didn't want to get involved with it."
Cole, a committee member, said in the Feb. 23 version, United offered a premium of $26,250, the same as last year. He said the committee would have passed that as "a slam dunk" if Democrats hadn't questioned Long's role.
Cole said, "Had not Nancy Sheehan gone out and found another vendor, we'd be paying them an extra ($5,250)."
Ms. Sheehan said, "When the politics got involved in it, I was worried the insurance would run out." The policy was to expire March 13, but a 30-day extension was obtained. "I wanted somebody we wouldn't have to argue over," she said.