Is Mayor Byron W. Brown trying to intimidate police officers he suspects of divulging details of his alleged role in getting Leonard Stokes off the hook when he was picked up two years ago on suspicions of using a stolen handicapped parking permit?
Niagara Council Member David Rivera thinks so. The retired detective sergeant called a news conference Sunday in which he said he's been told by a member of the Police Department that prominent defense attorney Joel L. Daniels, acting on behalf of the mayor, contacted the police officers who apprehended Stokes two years ago. Daniels attempted to question the police officers about the incident, Rivera said.
"If it is true, it is an egregious abuse of power by the mayor's office," Rivera said.
The Council member continued to say that if the mayor interceded on Stokes' behalf two years ago, as alleged, then Brown obstructed a police investigation. The handicapped parking permit Stokes was suspected of using could have been among the hundreds stolen from City Hall at that time, he noted.
Rivera said he will ask the Federal Bureau of Investigation to launch a probe.
Both Daniels and Peter Cutler, the mayor's spokesman, said the administration has not retained Daniels.
"The administration has not retained Joel Daniels for anything," Cutler said emphatically.
"I haven't been retained by the mayor," Daniels added.
But Daniels, when asked if he has attempted to question officers in a less-formal role, said he was "not at liberty" to comment further.
"I'm not going to comment on whether I've made inquiries," he said.
Is he working for the mayor in a capacity short of being formally retained?
"I can't discuss that, can't comment on that," he said.
Cutler, meanwhile, confirmed that the administration has started "fact finding" in the Stokes matter, but declined to comment when asked for details.
"I'm not going to go into detail. I don't think it's relevant," Cutler said.
Sunday's developments followed publication of a Buffalo News story that quotes police sources saying that Brown interceded on Stokes' behalf during the summer of 2007 after police apprehended the former basketball star outside the Ellicott Square for allegedly using a stolen handicapped parking permit.
Three sources told The News that Stokes, after being handcuffed and placed in the back of a squad car, insisted that he be taken to the mayor's office. A call was eventually placed to the mayor's office and officers were subsequently ordered to bring the suspect to City Hall.
After meeting with the mayor, sources said, Stokes was allowed to leave a free man.
"The mayor definitely made it go away," said one law enforcement source who has detailed knowledge of the case.
Brown has refused to comment on The News' findings, while saying the accusations are politically motivated. Brown is seeking re-election and facing a primary challenge Sept. 15 from South Council Member Michael Kearns. While Brown was initially considered a prohibitive favorite, the race is regarded as becoming more competitive in the wake of a series of controversies that have rocked City Hall over the past four months.
The episode involving the handicapped parking permit occurred about the same time Stokes was seeking loans from the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. to open a restaurant on Delaware Avenue near Gates Circle. Brown is chairman of the agency, which eventually gave Stokes $80,000 in loans and a $30,000 grant to open One Sunset, which operated for a year before closing amid a sea of red ink. The restaurant debts total some $230,000, including defaulted loans to the city and Erie County Industrial Development Agency, unpaid tax receipts owed the state, and claims for unpaid bills and missing equipment by private parties.
A subsequent audit by City Comptroller Andrew SanFilippo confirmed The News' key findings and criticized the agency for making the loans, saying officials circumvented lending procedures and that the restaurant was "doomed for failure right from the start."
Brown has said he had little knowledge of the loans and, while acknowledging he met with Stokes on several occasions, said he did not go to bat for Stokes.
The revelation that Brown allegedly helped Stokes get out of hot water with the police is certain to intensify questions as to whether Brown played a more direct role in the city's decision to lend Stokes money than what the mayor has said.
Rivera had a separate set of concerns.
"In 25 years in the Police Department, I never heard of a case when someone was arrested, taken to the mayor's office and then allowed to go free," he said.
"You can't obstruct an investigation and that's exactly what he did. Who knows what information Leonard Stokes might have provided?" Rivera said.
A city employee was charged in 2007 in the theft of more than 600 handicapped parking permits, some of which were sold on the streets.
Rivera said he will make a formal request to the FBI on Tuesday to launch an investigation.
Cutler attacked Rivera for what he said are his politically motivated actions.
"This is not about politics," Rivera countered, "this is about obstruction of justice."