Mayor Byron W. Brown has said that he would do nothing out of the ordinary to help Leonard Stokes with his restaurant, One Sunset. But at about the same time Stokes was trying to get city funds for the restaurant, Brown was intervening on Stokes' behalf when police apprehended him for allegedly possessing a stolen handicapped parking permit, three sources familiar with the 2007 case told The Buffalo News.
Brown has said in earlier interviews that Stokes was a "young man with promise" and that while he met with him to discuss his business plans for One Sunset, he did nothing more for Stokes than what he would do for any aspiring business owner -- that is, ask his development staff to see if they could be "helpful."
Yet during the summer of 2007 incident, sources said, police officers, handcuffed and placed Stokes in a patrol car after they received calls that his vehicle parked outside the Ellicott Square allegedly displayed a stolen handicapped parking permit. Stokes insisted to police on calling the mayor, the sources said.
After repeated requests, police called the mayor's office. An officer was told to take Stokes directly to the mayor's second-floor office in City Hall. Sources said it was unclear who gave the directive to deliver Stokes to Brown, but the order was followed.
A short time later, sources confirmed, Stokes was allowed to leave City Hall a free man. He wasn't arrested or booked. As a result, they said, there are no official police records.
"The mayor definitely made it go away," said one law enforcement source who has detailed knowledge of the case. "Does everybody have this kind of 'get out of jail free' card?"
The incident occurred in the summer of 2007, when Stokes was applying for -- and receiving -- city funds for his One Sunset restaurant, which eventually failed.
When The Buffalo News asked Brown about the allegation, he responded: "I will say to you I have no comment on your story."
Brown then insisted on meeting privately with three of his advisers: First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey, chief spokesman Peter K. Cutler and mayoral aide Peter J. Savage III.
Cutler emerged from the meeting, reiterating that the mayor would have "no comment" until the administration could "look into the details" of the allegations.
One day after The News confronted Brown with the claims, he called to add to his earlier statement.
Brown said the claims are "politically motivated."
Brown faces a challenge in the Sept. 15 Democratic primary from South Council Member Michael P. Kearns.
Even after being asked several times, the mayor would not directly deny that he intervened on behalf of Stokes during the 2007 police investigation of the stolen handicapped parking permit.
"I am fact-checking this," Brown said.
Why won't he confirm or deny that he had direct involvement in meeting with Stokes shortly after police took him into custody?
"That was two years ago," Brown said. "This is clearly politically motivated. The timing is very questionable."
Was Stokes brought to the mayor's office by a police officer?
"This was two years ago," Brown repeated. "What we're trying to do is get all the facts."
Brown added that, when his review is finished, "this will be completely cleared up." He wouldn't be specific about his refusal to answer basic questions about the alleged incident. Stokes could not be reached to comment.
Stokes and One Sunset vaulted into the spotlight earlier this year following a Buffalo News investigation into his failed restaurant at 1389 Delaware Ave., north of Gates Circle. One Sunset received $160,000 in public money, then went belly up last December.
>'Doomed to failure'
Separate investigations by The News and by Buffalo Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo concluded that a city development agency controlled by Brown circumvented processes to give loans.
SanFilippo said the restaurant was clearly a business that was "doomed to failure right from the start." Stokes had neither the expertise, capital or business plan to make One Sunset succeed, the city audit concluded.
Since then, Michelle Barron, who played a key role in getting One Sunset city and county funding, and also had a questionable hands-on role in helping to operate the restaurant, was recently fired as a vice president of Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp.
Also, the FBI recently subpoenaed city records related to One Sunset.
Brown, the BERC chairman, has repeatedly said he did not give BERC the green light to skirt rules and give money to a business that did not qualify.
A panel of BERC bankers turned down Stokes' initial request for funds in April 2007, but agency staffers approved a revised One Sunset plan in June 2007, authorizing a $40,000 loan. A few months later, in September 2007, BERC gave Stokes a $30,000 grant. BERC approved another $40,000 loan in January 2008. In August 2008, Stokes received a $50,000 loan from the Erie County IDA.
The News previously asked Brown about rumors that he had met numerous times with Stokes, a former basketball star at Turner-Carroll High School as well as the University of Cincinnati, as One Sunset was being launched.
"Have I met with him? Absolutely. But I meet with literally hundreds of people every week," Brown replied.
One week after sources contacted The Buffalo News about the parking permit incident, a law enforcer also called Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera to discuss the 2007 case. Rivera, a retired detective sergeant in the Buffalo Police Department, said he was stunned by the chain of the events.
"In my 25 years of being a police officer, I cannot ever remember an incident where a person who was apprehended by police was taken to the mayor's office," Rivera said.
"If this is true, it amounts to interference with a police investigation," Rivera said.
Rivera said Brown's initial "no comment," followed by his refusal to deny the claims, fuels even greater concern.
"He could have said 'It's absolutely false. There's no merit to this.' But they know there's a trail," Rivera said.
The Council member denied that his comments are politically motivated, although Rivera is supporting Kearns in the primary. Rivera said that when a law enforcement source contacted him a week after The News was contacted, he felt it was important to publicly acknowledge that he was aware of the serious allegations.
The three sources asked that their names not be used, fearing retribution from the administration. Rivera claimed the "fear factor" has spurred many city employees to keep quiet about numerous concerns involving city operations.
In January 2007, more than 600 handicapped parking permits were stolen from a locked basement area in City Hall. Alfonzo Harvin Jr., a former city laborer, was charged with the crime. In the months that followed the arrest, police were on the lookout for the stolen permits. They believe they found one inside Stokes' vehicle, a source said.
If it's true that the mayor personally intervened to help Stokes with police shortly before he opened his restaurant, why should people believe that he didn't help steer public money to Stokes' business?
Brown replied that city auditors went through "reams of documents" and found absolutely no evidence that the mayor "did anything wrong."
Does Brown consider Stokes a personal friend?
"I'm not going to get into all that," Brown replied. "As I've said, I think he's a young man who has promise . . . this is totally politically motivated."
Three times Friday, a reporter pressed the mayor to either confirm or deny that he personally became involved in a police investigation involving Stokes.
"I'm going to continue to focus on what I need to focus on -- that is, continuing to move this city forward," Brown replied.