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Change needed at BURA City agency must tighten its procedures before handing out more public money

Somebody was not paying attention. Officials of the City of Buffalo knew that a local foundation it was working with had a prominent representative with a criminal background, but didn't check deeply enough into his history before approving a $2.18 million grant. What were they thinking? The simplest answer is that they weren't.

Umar Adeyola is a felon who has served prison time for identity theft, money laundering and lying to federal officials. That didn't stop the city's chief economic development and housing agency from approving the grant to the Helping Empower At-Risk Teens Foundation, known as HEART. It was only when reporters from The Buffalo News started asking questions about the arrangement that the city backed out of the project.

It is true that the organization did not disclose Adeyola's specific crimes to the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, but if the agency did know enough of his criminal background to ask a question or two, or even to perform a Google search, that would have quickly turned up stories on Adeyola's criminal history.

BURA is chaired by Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown; its board members include Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto, Council President David A. Franczyk and South Council Member Michael P. Kearns. The three Council members all took part in the Aug. 25 vote to approve the grant and all said they were never made aware by BURA that Adeyola was even involved in the project to benefit homeless veterans, let alone that he had a criminal record.

Now Kearns and other lawmakers are calling for reforms to BURA. It may be a little like closing the barn door after the horses are gone, but for one thing: There will always be more horses. Plainly, something needs to change to prevent BURA from giving away millions of dollars without a thorough investigation.

One practical idea is to expand the BURA board by adding a member from the City Comptroller's Office. That could inject a welcome dose of fiscal discipline to the board's operations.

What won't do is to do nothing. Michael J. DeGeorge, Brown's spokesman, said that while the city is always looking to see if something can be done better, "at the end of this day, the city caught it. There were no funds released."

A good attempt at spin, but wrong.

Reporters caught it and the city responded. Having come too close to potentially wasting more than $2 million in public funds, the city and BURA need to commit to reforms that can reassure the public that its dollars are being wisely spent.

The mayor, as head of that agency, should tell Buffalo residents that he backs reforms and wants to see a plan. Soon.

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