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Developer's donations fuel ethics debate

Over the last 16 months, Gerald A. Buchheit Jr., developer for Wal-Mart's proposed Orchard Park project, has donated more than $10,000 to the town Republican Committee.

There is nothing illegal about the contributions, but they are contributing to an ethics debate.

Councilwoman Deborah Yeomans and Town Supervisor Mary Travers Murphy have been trying to schedule a hearing on changing the town's ethics ordinance to eliminate officers from political parties from paid, appointed town positions. But they have been blocked by the three-member Republican Town Board majority.

"This goes way beyond" an appearance of conflict of interest, Yeomans said. "I think there's a definite conflict of interest."

Buchheit makes no apologies.

"I have given money to people who have supported my attempts to make a nice plaza for the Town of Orchard Park," he said. "It's clear those people are trying to make this a political football. [Travers Murphy] has, ever since she got in."

Buchheit has been a big giver to mainly Republican causes. He gave at least $8,000 to Friends of Pataki for then-Gov. George E. Pataki and $3,000 to attorney general candidate Jeanine F. Pirro. But he also gave $1,000 to Democrat Eliot L. Spitzer's gubernatorial bid.

Yeomans and Travers Murphy say that officers of the Republican Committee should not be voting on Buchheit's projects.

Orchard Park Republican Chairwoman Jo Ann Litwin, a member of the town Insurance Advisory Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals, is insulted by the suggestion.

"The things we do on the Zoning Board, I don't look with political eyes," Litwin said. "I look with my community eyes and through my pride in the town."

Travers Murphy said that there were clear conflicts and that "it's what people hate about government; it's why I was elected."

The supervisor criticized the appearance of Buchheit and Wal-Mart officials during a meeting of the Town Board on March 7 when they were invited by Councilwoman Nan Ackerman.

Ackerman said she was appointed as liaison to Buchheit's Quaker Crossing project -- the site of the proposed Wal-Mart -- when Quaker Crossing was created. "Because it's such a large development, it does require extra scrutiny, which is something I feel I'm obligated to do," Ackerman said. "I don't think Gerry's getting any preferential treatment; he's being scrutinized more than anyone else."

Buchheit has been known for playing hardball -- profitably. Buchheit and Northstar Development sold the Statler Towers to British developer Bashar Issa for $5 million.

Ackerman said that her interests are in architecture and that she has worked in a similar fashion with projects other than Quaker Crossing. But Quaker Crossing is the only place where her liaison status is official.

Yeomans said she was disturbed by reports of Ackerman's input to Buchheit on the project without the rest of the board's knowledge.

"Nan has been working on a project that no one on the Town Board was aware of," Yeomans said, "working a project that had never even been discussed."

Meanwhile, Yeomans is facing criticism herself. Robert J. Lennartz, chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, said she had never met with him or come to a Zoning Board meeting, despite his invitation.

"I feel very strongly that it's unfair and maybe unconstitutional to say that because I belong to a political party, I shouldn't have a place in town government," said Lennartz, who is an officer on the town's Conservative Party Committee. "That's blatant discrimination."

e-mail: eploetz@buffnews.com

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