I don't blame Byron Brown for laying low. When you are this connected to a catastrophe, you typically hunker down, keep your mouth shut and hope that things blow over.
Unfortunately for the mayor, this may not go away anytime soon. I do not know how wide or high the Kensington Heights fiasco will go. But connect the political dots, and they point -- at very least -- to yet another black eye for Brown.
The stuff keeps piling higher at the long-abandoned public housing project hard by the Kensington Expressway. For three decades the vacant, rat-infested towers have stood as a symbol of neighborhood blight and political and bureaucratic ineptitude. Part of that buck stops with Brown, who represented the district since 1996 as a councilman, a state senator and, now, as mayor.
The disgrace doubled down last week, when the feds indicted two city inspectors, a state inspector, six others and two companies on felony charges of improper asbestos removal. Authorities say company honchos told workers to dump the carcinogenic insulation through holes in the floor. The inspectors looked the other way -- possibly under orders from higher-ups, given that prosecutors have seen no evidence of payoffs.
It gets worse. The six buildings, which were supposed to be demolished for a retirement community, stand next to a park where Pop Warner youth football teams practice.
"You've got kids out here rolling in the grass, putting their fingers in their mouths," Leeland Coleman told me, as we watched his son's team practice earlier this week. "What happens if some of them get cancer down the line?"
The mayor's fingerprints are all over the disaster. He controls the board of directors of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. The project's prime demolition contract was awarded to politically connected developer Hormoz Mansouri, a frequent Brown campaign contributor. Mansouri was for years joined at the hip with political operative Steve Pigeon, another longtime Brown associate.
The massive screw-up raises questions, to my mind, about the process by which Mansouri -- Brown's longtime political ally -- was awarded the site's demolition contract.
No wonder that Brown has been hard to find since the asbestos story broke. He tried to distance himself, telling The Buffalo News through a spokesman that "it's not a city project."
It may not technically be a city project, but Brown appoints most of the BMHA board. And he had no problem cozying up to the project in 2009, appearing with Mansouri and others at a ceremonial "demolition" media event.
There is no evidence that Mansouri is involved in any wrongdoing (the indicted companies are subcontractors), or that Brown or other elected officials knew what was going on. This might not go any further than where it now stands. Or the buck could stop higher on the food chain. It depends on what prosecutors can prove and on whether -- if others were involved -- those accused will name names.
"A lot of money got paid out," East Side activist Larry Williams said of the $105 million project. "Who else was involved in this? How high did it go?
"We have to stop accepting the word of these politicians that they're doing the right thing by us," Williams added.
Even if no one else is charged, this is a political hit for Brown and an indictment of the housing authority he controls. Under a variety of leaders and mayors, the BMHA for 31 years has allowed the high-rise eyesores to rot in plain sight.
The question, as always with these catastrophes, is who knew what and when? The higher up the food chain this goes, the worse it looks for the mayor.