Mayor Byron W. Brown turned the tables on his accusers Wednesday and called for an FBI investigation into what he said are efforts to "smear" his name and "bring down this administration."
His remarks came during a meeting with The Buffalo News Editorial Board at which he also insisted that he did not tell police to release restaurateur Leonard Stokes, who was apprehended during a 2007 probe of stolen disabled parking tags. "I did not ask anyone to let Leonard Stokes go," he said.
But Brown once again refused to confirm or deny that Stokes was brought to the mayor's City Hall office on the day the former high school and college basketball star was apprehended for possessing one of the hundreds of handicapped parking tags that had been stolen from City Hall.
"I'm not going to discuss this matter because there's going to be more to this," the mayor said.
But even if Brown did intervene on Stokes' behalf, as accusers claim, Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said Wednesday in a telephone interview that no state laws were broken. "If everything alleged is true, the mayor did not commit a crime under New York State Penal Law," Sedita said.
Others in the local law enforcement community, however, said that bringing a suspect to the mayor's office, if true, is nonetheless in appropriate and highly unusual. Some also raised the possibility of a federal crime being committed, although legal experts said that prospect is also unlikely but cannot be completely ruled out.
"The federal obstruction of justice law is sufficiently broad to encompass an attempt to interfere with the conduct of an investigation by law enforcement officers," said Dennis Vacco, a former U.S. attorney for Western New York.
*Brown's communications director confirmed that defense attorney Joel Daniels has been helping the administration to "gather facts" in connection with the Stokes scandal. Peter K. Cutler stressed that while Daniels has not been "retained" by the mayor, he has been working in a voluntary capacity.
Daniels confirmed that he has interviewed several police officials but denied claims by a Common Council member that he contacted officers who apprehended Stokes. Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera has accused the administration of trying to "intimidate" officers, a claim that both Daniels and administration officials have denied.
*Brown pledged full cooperation in what is expected to be a Common Council investigation into how his administration handled the Stokes controversy.
"I'm fine with that, if they want to investigate," he said.
Council President David A. Franczyk has said lawmakers might even issue subpoenas if Brown and other administration officials refuse to come before the Council's Police Oversight Committee.
But Brown said, "There will be no need for [subpoenas] as long as any hearing or meeting is properly held, recorded and has transparency."
Council Majority Leader Richard A. Fontana said one early step in the Council review might involve extending an invitation to police officers involved in the Stokes investigation to initially meet privately with Council leaders. Fontana said it is clear some law enforcement officials fear "retribution" if they speak out.
Police sources have charged that two years ago, Stokes was apprehended by city police who spotted what they believed was a stolen handicapped parking permit in the car he was driving. 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 eventually was 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 incident occurred the same year that Stokes applied for city funds to help operate a short-lived restaurant, One Sunset, on Delaware Avenue.
Brown has acknowledged meeting with Stokes on the One Sunset project but has said he didn't do anything more for Stokes than he would do for any other entrepreneur interested in starting a business in the city.
Brown previously has declined to comment on the allegation that he intervened to keep Stokes from being arrested, but he has denied any wrongdoing.
At The News Editorial Board meeting, the mayor said he hopes to contact the FBI to request that a probe into the city's involvement in Stokes' failed restaurant be expanded to include an investigation into "smear" tactics that he said his administration has been subjected to for quite a while.
"This is not the first time that a member or members of this community have tried to malign me and smear my name for political reasons," the mayor said. "So I would love for an agency like the FBI to come in, look at this more deeply and to find the people who are responsible for some of these behaviors and some of these actions."
The mayor predicted that if federal investigators begin to probe the issue, the investigation will "go to places" that some political detractors wouldn't want it to go.
"Is there in fact a conspiracy? Are there individuals who have been working together, conspiring, planning in different ways to try to bring down this administration and to create a scandal that doesn't exist?" he asked.
Earlier this week, Council Member Rivera said he would ask the FBI to investigate the handicapped parking permit incident and suggested that Brown was guilty of obstruction of justice.
Obstruction of justice is a federal charge and is usually associated with federal crimes, not local or state ones.
Vacco said the federal obstruction charge could be relevant.
"Without knowing any of the underlying facts, other than what is in the public domain, it appears, based upon law, that it would not be unreasonable for federal law enforcement authorities to conduct a further review of the incident," he said.
New York State does not have an obstruction of justice charge but does have an obstruction of governmental administration charge. But that charge, according to Sedita, requires that a suspect used physical force to prevent police from upholding the law.
In this case, Stokes was picked up with what was believed to be a single stolen handicapped parking permit. If arrested on a criminal possession of stolen property charge, he would be facing a misdemeanor, not a felony.
Beyond that, legal experts say police have broad discretion in determining if someone should be arrested.
Charles Ewing, a University at Buffalo law professor, said there are numerous instances of suspects or their attorneys requesting to speak to an authority higher than the arresting officer, typically a ranking officer or police commissioner, to ask that charges be dropped.
Such arrangements, though, usually are made within police headquarters, according to law enforcement officials, who said this is the first local case they are familiar with where a suspect was supposedly taken to the mayor's office before being released.
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