Three days a week, unhappy motorists converge on City Hall, waiting in line to persuade a hearing officer they don't deserve the parking tickets they got on Buffalo's streets.
It's often inconvenient for those skipping work or school to make the trip.
Meanwhile, others, with City Hall connections, get tickets dismissed almost hassle-free. They just write letters to the city's parking enforcement director. Two-thirds of the time, their tickets go away. If not, the fines usually are slashed.
And when these people actually show up to ask a hearing officer to dismiss a ticket, the results are as good.
For instance, Paul Gaughan, deputy commissioner of jurors for Erie County, received 43 tickets in two years. He challenged 28, most by letter. And 95 percent of the contested fines disappeared, saving him $1,205.
City Court Judge Patrick M. Carney got $805 in fines waived, including $265 on five expired inspection tickets.
Mayor Anthony M. Masiello's brothers -- Vito and Michael -- got a combined $150 dismissed from tickets on the street where one lived.
And Leonard R. Sciolino, the son of the city's parking enforcement director, also had decent luck getting tickets dismissed. He received 12 tickets. Eight were fully or partially dismissed, saving him $290.
"I try to control these things as much as possible," Parking Enforcement Director Leonard G. Sciolino said of the requests for help he receives from ticketed drivers. "I say no a lot."
Not everyone known to City Hall gets parking tickets erased. Many pay fines like most residents and visitors to the city.
But a Buffalo News analysis of almost 24,000 parking ticket hearings -- covering some 33,000 tickets from January 2003 to February 2005 -- found many connected people not paying fines. The city dismissed $1.5 million -- most through hearings -- in fines and penalties over the two years in total, including $106,000 for those who sent letters to Sciolino.
Of 500 tickets issued to insiders -- judges, political party leaders, elected and appointed government officials -- half were challenged. Eighty-five percent of fines on their contested tickets were dropped.
For others, what happens with their tickets doesn't depend on who they are, but before whom they appear. For them, 49 percent of the contested fines were dropped.
The News analysis also found a wide disparity in how 10 hearing officers rule on ticket cases.
Among the findings:
The write-in defense was the most successful way out of a ticket, with 71 percent of fines dismissed. The method is typically used for those living at least 50 miles outside of Buffalo. But twice as many people living inside Erie County got tickets dismissed this way.
The few City Hall insiders who showed up for the normal hearing process also did well. Their fines dropped 73 percent.
For all others at the hearings, the outcome often hinged on which hearing officer they saw. Each of the 10 hearing officers dismissed anywhere from 31 percent to 62 percent of fines.
Chief hearing officer Randall Kay hasn't paid a city parking ticket in two years, even though he got seven, totaling $245, while on the job at City Hall. Sciolino's staff dismissed six without a hearing, including one for parking too close to a fire hydrant. Kay's car was ticketed when there were no available spaces next to City Hall, where he's allowed to park for free, Sciolino said.
Overall, just one of every 16 ticketed motorists requested a hearing to fight their tickets.
Two who showed up can see why more people don't bother.
M.C. Rice from the City of Tonawanda recalled lumbering into City Hall six months pregnant after being ticketed in August for an expired registration. The new sticker was on the dashboard. But being pregnant, she said, she was unable to affix the sticker to the window.
"I told him I couldn't maneuver my pregnant self to get it on," she recalled. "I was too big to bend over."
Kay rejected her appeal.
Maria Brickhouse had a similar experience. She took off from work and got her friend's medical records and a notarized letter from the doctor's office to prove she parked on the wrong side of the street to accommodate a friend with a broken ankle she was taking to the doctor. Another officer denied her appeal.
"Literally, I wasn't there a minute," she said of her hearing. "For most people it's not cost effective. Just pay the $30."
Defending the system
Sciolino defended the letter-writing appeal that accommodates government officials, business people, trial lawyers, and news reporters and photographers, among others, who get ticketed downtown in the course of doing their jobs.
"It's being user-friendly," Sciolino said.
Sciolino said he passes their letters to Kay, often with his own note attached. If the people do show up, they see Kay without waiting in line.
Businesses get special consideration, too, Sciolino said.
"These businesses, they're located on Court Street, and Delaware Avenue, and Franklin Street, where there's no parking," he said.
Public officials using their own cars on city business also deserve the break, Sciolino said.
Michael Risman, the city's top attorney, got four tickets dismissed, including one for expired registration and another for an expired inspection.
Risman said he was on city business at the time, so he gave them to Sciolino, not realizing they weren't all expired meter violations.
"Because Mike Risman is an employee of the city, he has the ability to get in and out fast, as do a lot of people," Sciolino said. "That's part of the system."
Sciolino's boss, city Finance Commissioner James B. Milroy, also benefited from the system.
Milroy was ticketed for parking at an expired meter downtown and another time for parking on the wrong side of the street outside his home. Both tickets were dismissed.
"He would just tell me, 'I got a parking ticket. It was during the course of the business day.' And I would accommodate him," Sciolino said.
Niagara Council Member Dominic J. Bonifacio -- not Milroy -- wrote Sciolino asking the parking bureau to dismiss Milroy's alternate parking ticket, which a parking officer wrote while the two were meeting in Milroy's house.
Milroy defended the dismissal of his meter overtime ticket, which he said he received outside City Hall during a control board meeting.
"When I go to those meetings, I put my own quarters in the meters," he said. "Those meetings go on for three hours. It's not like I can get up in the middle of the meeting to feed the meter."
Overall, 2,800 tickets were handled through the letter-writing defense, a small portion of the 429,821 tickets the city issued during a two-year period, Sciolino said. The letters led to nearly $106,000 in waived fines.
"It's really not that bad," he said.
Sciolino said while he forwards the letters, and half the time writes accompanying notes, Kay decides the fate of the tickets. Kay said Sciolino's notes allowing otherwise unauthorized parking are often the basis for the dismissals.
Sometimes, Sciolino says, it can be difficult when top officials ask for his help.
"Yeah, that's a tough spot that puts me in," Sciolino said.
No written policy
Part of the problem is the lack of written City Hall policy on handling these requests.
"There is no official policy," said Matthew L. Brown, Masiello's communications director. "There's every expectation that we park legally and we do the right thing."
As a result, some employees pay tickets; others get them dismissed.
Thomas E. Gleed, a mayoral aide, received a dozen tickets since 2002, carrying $695 in fines and penalties for parking on sidewalks, in no-parking zones and at expired meters.
He paid one $15 ticket. Everything else was dismissed, even a $65 expired inspection ticket.
Brown defended most of Gleed's dismissals. Five tickets next to City Hall "were waiveable off the bat," Brown said. The others, given while at meetings or while accompanying the mayor on walking tours also should have been dismissed, Brown said. Brown, however, could not explain why Gleed's ticket for an expired inspection was dropped.
"I never asked for that to be waived," Gleed said.
When Gleed went to Sciolino for help, Gleed did not separate that ticket from the no-standing ticket he received at the same time, Gleed said. Brown himself received $610 in tickets in two years, almost all issued next to City Hall, where Gleed got many of his.
Brown paid every one.
"I haven't taken advantage of it simply because I don't want the hassle," Brown said. "I pay my own tickets."
The people with the most fines dismissed, however, are not in City Hall. Many are in courtrooms.
Gaughan, the deputy commissioner of jurors, got the most fines dismissed of any area resident -- $1,205. Others in the legal community aren't far behind.
Judge Carney challenged 15 parking tickets issued to three cars registered in his name. All the tickets -- totaling $805 -- were waived.
Carney showed up for hearings on 10 of the tickets; five others were handled by Kay outside the normal hearing process.
"I went to the hearings like anybody else," Carney said when asked about the tickets. "I waited in line, even when they called for me ahead of time. I had a valid defense, and that's why I went."
Buffalo defense attorney Salvatore P. Abbate got $1,105 waived, almost two-thirds of what he challenged. Abbate appeared before three different hearing officers. Usually they dismissed Abbate's late fees but he paid the original fines.
"Ninety-nine percent of it is showing up," Abbate said of the money he's saved. "If you show up, they look kindly on you."
Indeed, showing up for a hearing can pay off, depending on which hearing officer presides.
Looking for leniency
Overall, in thousands of hearings since 2003, six hearing officers waived one-half or more of the fines ticketed motorists challenged. Three other hearing officers waived between 40 and 50 percent of fines. Another, Kay, dismissed just under one-third.
"I try to adhere to the vehicle and traffic code and to Common Council regulations. They were passed for a reason," Kay said. "I will look at the code strictly."
The range of dismissal rates "bothers me," Sciolino said.
Ideally, only 40 percent of the fines and penalties would be waived in hearings, Sciolino said, although he adds he could settle for 50 percent. He said his staff has noticed repeat offenders adjourning cases until a lenient officer is on duty. Most days, one or two hearing officers are presiding.
For Rice and Brickhouse, the two motorists who found no relief in their hearings, it hardly mattered which hearing officer they were sent to on Sept. 30. Both officers on duty that day have the lowest dismissal rates. As a group, the 110 people who joined Rice and Brickhouse in pleading their cases that day got 25 percent of their fines waived.
If they waited a week, it could have been different.
The two officers on duty Oct. 7 have the second- and third-highest dismissal rates. The 141 people pleading their cases that day got 69 percent of their fines dismissed.
For that day, it seemed like everyone was treated like a City Hall insider.