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Ousted commissioner opens up In first major interview since her firing, Thomas speaks out about Brown's City Hall

Byron W. Brown's administration is steered by paranoia, "bullying" tactics that petrify underlings and a pattern of trying to skirt state civil service laws, according to Karla L. Thomas, who was ousted as a key mayoral adviser earlier this year.

Brown fired Thomas, a former longtime friend and political ally, in January as human resources commissioner. The $91,374-a-year position oversees all personnel, benefits and civil service issues.

In her first extensive interview since her dismissal and a bitter termination hearing, Thomas painted a picture of a mayor who is a puppet of First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey, who she says runs City Hall through intimidation and by fostering a "culture of distrust."

"It's the meanness that sets this administration apart from all the others," said Thomas, who spent 27 months as commissioner before her termination under a cloud of controversy.

"The people elected Byron. They did not elect Casey. And, unfortunately, Casey's style is so different from the Byron I know that it has changed my perception of him."

Brown tries to fuel suspicions among government branches, discourages commissioners from talking with reporters and ignores negative news stories in the belief that "if you just leave it alone, it will go away," she said.

Thomas made many other allegations in two interviews with The Buffalo News that spanned nearly five hours, including:

Brown never wanted a full-blown national search for a new police commissioner.

Brown knew or should have known she was receiving unemployment benefits following her firing, but later feigned surprise because administrators "were caught with their pants down" when embarrassing disclosures surfaced that the city did not try to fight her benefits.

Some city offices are dysfunctional -- including the auditing unit, which only manages to "discover anything after it becomes a catastrophe."

For these reasons, Brown does not deserve to be re-elected if he seeks a third term in 2013, Thomas said.

Thomas admitted that she was hesitant to put her views on record for fear that some would brand her a "scorned" former employee who was trying to get revenge for her widely publicized termination. She said her loyalty to Brown spurred her to remain silent, adding that even now, it pains her to speak critically of him.

"I love Byron, but I don't like him," she said. "I think he has lost his way. He has gone from being in office for purpose, to being in office for power."

> Hearing a 'sham'

Brown administration officials were invited to review Thomas' allegations and respond. Spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said the administration had no desire to review her claims point by point, or to "engage in a tit-for-tat with a fired worker."

"Ms. Thomas is a disgruntled former employee who was fired for cause after costing city taxpayers almost a million dollars in health insurance premiums paid to dead city employees," DeGeorge wrote in a statement. "She was afforded full due process including a public hearing in which the hearing officer determined her termination was appropriate."

DeGeorge also noted that a court upheld the legality of the termination proceeding.

"The city has moved on," DeGeorge said.

Thomas insists the hearing was a sham and ignored key evidence. She also accused Brown of not being truthful when he testified that Thomas' response to the audit that red-flagged the insurance problems was "caustic and accusatory." Thomas said she drafted a response that accepted responsibility for the problem, but that the mayor's office insisted the attorneys rewrite the response to "beef it up." The final document criticized the Comptroller's Office, fueling tensions that intensified the controversy.

Brown routinely expects his commissioners to "take a bullet for him" when his carefully manicured image is at risk of being tarnished, Thomas said. She cited as one example a 2010 search for a new police commissioner.

The mayor assured reporters that a national search would be conducted to replace H. McCarthy Gipson, whom Brown fired at the start of his second term. But Thomas said Brown made it clear to her from the start that he was not expecting an exhaustive national search. Thomas said the mayor was satisfied to have the job opening posted on various Internet sites.

Does Thomas share critics' views that Brown intended all along to nominate Daniel Derenda for the top job?

Thomas would only say that Derenda lacked some credentials that other candidates possessed.

"There were [candidates] who had doctorates, and we hired someone with a G.E.D.," she replied.

Administration officials also frequently tried to nudge ineligible employees into civil service jobs, Thomas contended, claiming that her frequent objections played a key role in her deteriorating relationship with the mayor's office. Thomas claims she rebuffed such ploys numerous times, noting that she had a state-sanctioned duty to follow the rules.

> Conflict comes to a head

Thomas said she's convinced that Brown and Casey recruited her for the human resources job because they thought she would toe the line involving their desire to manipulate the civil service process. Up until she became commissioner, she chaired Grassroots, a political group that was instrumental in advancing Brown's career in elective office. Without divulging specifics about matters that she considers personnel issues, Thomas said she refused on numerous occasions to go along with hirings or promotions.

"I just wouldn't play ball, and they expected me to," Thomas said. "That's how a lot of these problems started."

She said the conflict came to a head when the mayor's office insisted on promoting an attorney in the Law Department -- a person "favored" by the administration.

"They wanted me to promote this other guy who was not eligible and skip the guy that was eligible," she said, claiming that Casey believed the eligible lawyer was too close to South Council Member Michael P. Kearns, who unsuccessfully challenged Brown.

When Thomas objected, she said she received a call from Casey telling her that there would be consequences for her resistance.

"They threatened to fire my labor relations attorney if I did not promote this person that they wanted," Thomas said, adding that her lawyer had the seniority for the promotion.

Casey made it clear that the firing was set to occur at the close of business that day, she alleged. Thomas said she still refused to sign off, insisting that the administration handle the promotion. Her attorney remained on staff, but left a short time later for a job in the private sector.

Thomas said she also was aghast when she was told that the mayor's office wanted to start writing job descriptions for new positions, a role that Thomas said should be performed by human resources professionals.

"I would not allow it," she said.

> Brown kept in 'bubble'

Casey clearly sets the divisive tone in the administration, said Thomas, who has previously described the first deputy mayor as a "cancer" in City Hall.

"Steve Casey is one of the most brilliant political strategists that I have ever met, and I've been in politics a long time," she said. "But as manager -- as a deputy mayor -- he's a tyrant. You probably won't find many people that have the nerve to say that out loud. But I'll say it."

Casey makes every effort to "isolate" the mayor, Thomas said.

"He insulates him and puts him in a bubble. And when people can walk past that insulation and get to him, they are a target," Thomas said.

As for her firing, which was triggered by disclosures that the city had paid health insurance for dead retirees, Thomas insisted she had leaned heavily on the city's then-benefits director to take corrective steps. At three separate staff meetings, she said that she prodded Tracy Healy, the benefits director, to buy the Social Security death index.

The News reached out to Healy's union president for Healey to discuss ongoing problems in the benefits office, but the president said Healy and others would not comment, citing pending legal issues.

Thomas maintained that top administration officials -- including managers in the Administration and Finance Department -- knew that Healy had been assigned the task. Thomas displayed email correspondences between Healy and budget officials that were written five months before a follow-up audit found that the problem still wasn't rectified.

"They knew full well that [Healy] was the person that that was delegated to, and that she lied and didn't purchase it," Thomas said.

Thomas also accused administration officials and the Comptroller's Office of playing up the problems with the health insurance benefits as a ploy to shift attention away from a problem that was being hidden. Thomas said at the time the controversy was brewing, the city was behind in paying its health insurance provider $24 million in money that was owed.

"They were jeopardizing the continuity of employees' health care," she said.

> Auditor disputes claims

Chief auditor Darryl McPherson conceded that the city was behind in making payments to its insurance provider, but only because of unresolved issues largely stemming from inaction in Thomas' Human Resources Department. At no time were employees at risk of losing health coverage, McPherson said.

McPherson also disputed Thomas' claims that his office failed to properly notify the Human Resources Department as auditors continued to find dead retirees on the benefits roster.

Is Thomas implying that she shares no blame?

"Listen, I was the commissioner of the department. I've said over and over that I, as head of the department, take full responsibility for its failures as well as its successes. But the punishment did not fit the crime," she said.

Thomas said she's proud of what she accomplished in a department that has been plagued by inefficiencies for decades. She claimed she helped to settle and avoid employee grievances, and would often work past midnight to attend to tasks.

If the fallout over the insurance benefits had spurred the mayor to suspend her for a period, Thomas said, that would have been acceptable. But to fire her midway through a job that comes with a state-mandated six-year term was wrong, she argued. Thomas, 55, said she needs two additional years in order to obtain a full pension, and that her departure will cost her more than $10,000 annually in pension benefits.

> A political pawn

Thomas said Brown went too far when he decided earlier this month to protest her unemployment benefits after auditors found that the city had failed to try to block the state payments.

Thomas alleged that Brown knew the Human Resources Department had not filed a protest trying to block her jobless benefits. Brown suspended Benefits Director Antoinette Palmer for a brief period, claiming she never informed his office of her decision.

"I don't believe for a nanosecond that Byron did not know I was collecting unemployment," Thomas said.

She's convinced the mayor displayed anger and indignation after "they were caught with their pants down."

Why would the mayor have initially gone along with a plan to allow her to collect jobless benefits?

Thomas said the administration was afraid of what she might say or do.

"The mayor knows me. I'm just not your average everyday chump. He knew that I was going to fight," she said.

Thomas depicted herself as a political pawn. Prior to being appointed to the city job, she worked for the Erie County Water Authority. Thomas said she received the job through Len Lenihan, head of the Erie County Democratic Party and a political nemesis of the Brown camp. Thomas said she didn't want to leave the Water Authority. She said Brown and Casey didn't like that Lenihan was making political hay of the fact he had hired a leader of Grassroots to a key job.

"They hated that [Lenihan] had that chip," Thomas said.

With the internal struggles over civil service jobs and other dissension, Thomas said it didn't take long for relations between her and the mayor to become strained.

In fact, she accused Brown of hatching a plan that would have planted the seeds for her firing at a televised meeting. She accused Brown of trying to engineer a "setup" during a videotaped June 2010 session of the mayor's accountability panel.

"CitiStat was supposed to be the end of me," Thomas said.

She said Brown privately insisted that Healy not be involved in the meeting. Thomas said she's convinced the mayor's panel planned to ambush her on issues that Healy was more intimately involved in, including buying the death index. When Thomas refused to dismiss Healy from the meeting, Thomas said officials decided not to ask any questions about key issues, choosing instead to try to embarrass her about less weighty issues.

The CitiStat meetings are blatantly orchestrated "television shows" aimed at portraying key members of Brown's cabinet as tough task masters, she said. The accountability panel is a disgraceful public relations ploy, she said.

> Intense paranoia

The level of paranoia in Brown's inner circles is far more intense than even some critics realize, Thomas said.

"Byron never wanted me to give him anything in writing," she said. "He said 'you can't trust these computers. Anything [you've] got, bring it to me, Karla. You don't have to send it through the computer.' "

Still, Thomas said she saved numerous emails that she received from the mayor. One email cited Buffalo News reporters by name, mentioning that they were developing new angles to the controversy.

Brown also warned her that the Common Council was going to "politicize" the issues.

"This will be a horrible witchhunt. Stay strong," the mayor wrote to Thomas about two weeks before he served her with termination papers.

In the same August 2010 email, Brown assured Thomas that he viewed her as being "absolutely qualified" for the commissioner's job. Two weeks later, he served her with termination papers.

The mayor discouraged Thomas from dealing with officials in the Comptroller's Office -- the office that conducted the audits.

" 'These people are not our friends.' That's what he told me about the comptroller," Thomas said.

Thomas claims she had a tough time finding an attorney to take her case against the city. She said some law firms fear that if they take on such cases, they could be frozen out of lucrative contracts the city awards to outside law firms.

> Fear of disloyalty

What about numerous allegations that the Brown administration fosters a "pay-to-play" mentality in City Hall?

"Let me tell you something about that pay-to-play crap. Why did it not become an issue until a black man was mayor?" Thomas asked. "We all know what happens. And I don't know why people are trying to act like they're stupid now."

Still, Thomas refused to comment on specific controversies, including the One Sunset restaurant saga, saying she didn't know specifics.

Thomas repeatedly insisted that her public disclosures are not meant to embarrass the administration or get even with the man who fired her. She said her decision to remain silent during the height of the controversy proved that she was trying to remain "loyal" to a man who was her friend for decades.

"I should have freed myself from the weight of silence long ago, but the fear of disloyalty bound me like a ball and chain," she said.

Thomas said she has two main motivations for speaking out. One involves prodding the administration to change its ways.

"I want this stuff to stop," she said.

The other motivation is to try to clear her name, claiming it has been "dragged through the mud," making it difficult for her to find a job and causing pain to her family.

"For my grandchildren, I have got to fight back," she said.

email: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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