Buffalo's retired public works chief pleaded guilty Thursday to criminal charges that he accepted trips from companies that had contracts with the city -- a practice that Erie County's top prosecutor said may have been going on in City Hall for decades.
"We're not finished," said District Attorney Frank J. Clark, moments after Joseph N. Giambra entered his plea. "This is only the start. This is the first person who has entered a plea with regard to this practice, which has apparently been going on for generations."
Giambra, who retired as public works commissioner last December, admitted he took eight trips to destinations that included Las Vegas, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa between 2003 and 2005.
Clark said Giambra's guilty plea to three misdemeanor counts of accepting unlawful gratuities stems from an 18-month probe that continues. Clark wouldn't speculate on how many other individuals are under investigation, but he said no current or former elected officials are targets.
Giambra, 55, had no comment as he left court. His attorney, Rodney Personius, stressed that there are no allegations that the $7,500 in trips his client took influenced decisions he made as public works commissioner, including the awarding of contracts. He said Giambra took the trips after contracts had already been finalized with the city. The excursions included trips to golf resorts.
"It's important that the public understand there's no allegation here of any type of . . . misappropriation of funds or that the contracts weren't properly awarded," he said.
But Personius acknowledged that "the impropriety is in the appearance."
"It looks bad for a public employee to accept these trips, because it looks as though your actions are being influenced," he said.
Clark said he will leave it up to others to speculate whether Giambra's actions as public works chief may have been influenced by such trips.
"If somebody was awfully nice to me, it would be my natural inclination to return the favor," Clark said.
The prosecutor added that Giambra's plea only involves eight trips. During the three-year span that was reviewed, Clark said, Giambra probably took about 20 trips valued at more than $30,000.
State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang said she will not impose any prison time when Giambra is sentenced Sept. 10. Clark said Giambra could have faced up to two years in prison. Instead, he faces fines and up to three years' probation.
Clark said the architectural and engineering firms that paid for the trips have been granted immunity in return for supplying information. The companies that paid for the eight trips that Giambra admitted taking are CRA, Foit-Albert, Jansen-Kiener and TVGA.
Mayor Byron W. Brown issued a statement pointing out that the crimes Giambra admitted to committing occurred before Brown took office in 2006. The mayor said his administration has established new ethics guidelines for city employees, including a more vigorous review of any travel requests.
Giambra started working for the city in 1974. He headed the Public Works Department -- Buffalo's third-largest department -- for 13 years.
Brown spoke highly of Giambra's tenure in city government, saying he served with "great dedication and skill."
"While I regret this outcome, I remind everyone of Joe Giambra's superior service to the residents of our city during the 2006 October Surprise Storm, which demonstrated Joe's great experience and capability to perform at a high level during a crisis," Brown said in a written statement.
The mayor's office was notified of the grand jury probe in April 2006, a few months after the district attorney had commenced the investigation. Initially, the probe included claims of possible wrongdoing involving the awarding of municipal contracts in Amherst. But Clark said Thursday Amherst is not being investigated at this time.
The probe began after a whistle-blower at URS Corp. lodged a complaint with prosecutors that the company had been "lavishing rather expensive gifts" on City of Buffalo employees. URS had been awarded numerous city contracts over the years.
Clark said the investigation's main goal is to expose a practice that "everybody seems to think is just fine."
"It isn't fine. It doesn't make a level playing field. It favors some vendors over others. If you're not willing to pay the price and be part of the club, then you don't get contracts with the city," Clark said.
Buffalo's Board of Ethics is responsible for making sure city employees follow a code of ethics. One provision bars workers from accepting gifts worth more than $100 from entities that have done recent business with the city or have pending contracts. Personius claimed Giambra had filed some information with the watchdog panel involving trips he took, but he didn't disclose all information.
"The city ethics code, if you'll forgive me, is very poorly written," Personius said.