Share this article

print logo

Prosecutors question Davis' use of SUV; Say he obtained vehicle in exchange for contract

Meet businessman Charles S. Barone. Public records show he's 51, owns a home in Clarence Center and went out of his way a few years ago to provide a Buffalo councilman with a fine set of wheels.

It was a Lincoln Navigator, a sport utility vehicle with a V8 engine and roomy rear seats should then-Councilman Brian C. Davis have needed them for his entourage.

Barone's Navigator ferried Davis to his destinations for nearly two years -- an odd arrangement that will not be presented as evidence during the councilman's upcoming trial on public corruption charges because a judge ruled it's not central to the case.

Yet it's a peculiar tale that involves the stewardship of public money and the little luxuries that can flow to an officeholder willing to accept them.

The prosecutors in "United States v. Brian C. Davis" allege that Davis diverted taxpayer funds for personal use over several years and reaped rewards that went beyond his approximately $52,000 city-provided salary -- the Lincoln Navigator being an example.

Davis was to pay $400 a month to use the Navigator, which was purchased especially for him, court papers say. Though he made just three payments, in cash, Davis enjoyed the SUV's comforts from December 2007 to the fall of 2009, according to federal prosecutors.

Why would the businessman from Clarence Center do so much for a Buffalo councilman?

Prosecutors say Davis needed a vehicle and saw it as his due for steering a handsome quasi-public contract to Barone. The prosecutors called the Navigator the product of a shakedown that started at one of the councilman's favorite nonprofit agencies.

Davis, in addition to his duties as a councilman, presided over the volunteer board of directors of the Community Action Organization of Erie County. The CAO is a broad-shouldered nonprofit that spends $25 million to $30 million a year, mostly from government grants, on assorted initiatives for people in need.

The CAO in many cases draws its directors from the Grassroots political organization, which propelled Davis and a number of other political luminaries, such as Mayor Byron W. Brown, into office.

When the CAO in 2007 went looking for a company to bus toddlers to federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start programs, Barone became a bidder. He was a partner in a limousine service and later would become an owner of Buffalo Trolleys, which rents trolley-like vehicles for parties, weddings and proms.

However, in 2007 he had never run a bus company, owned no buses and had no employees who could run a bus company, the prosecutors said.

Still, Barone and Davis were acquainted, and Davis introduced the businessman to the CAO. In time, Barone became a busing contractor to the CAO under an agreement potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"At the time, nobody heard of Buffalo Bus Lines," another bidder said.

But Barone was on his way -- acquiring buses, hiring drivers and setting up a central facility.

Soon after Barone was selected by CAO, Davis told him that he needed a car, according to the government's papers and lawyer James Shaw, who represented Barone when he was being quizzed by federal prosecutors and then tethered to a lie detector one year ago.

"Davis didn't have credit and couldn't get a vehicle, so Barone allowed him to use it in return for payment," Shaw said of the Navigator. "In any event, Davis stops paying. Barone's chasing him and finally gets fed up and takes the Navigator back."

In court papers, prosecutor Russell T. Ippolito Jr. describes the arrangement as far more generous for the councilman. Barone spent $30,000 on the used Navigator. He provided the insurance and even paid for four parking tickets laid on the vehicle. Davis, in return, forwarded only three monthly payments.

>The best bidder

As far as Ippolito and the prosecution team are concerned, Davis essentially extorted the vehicle from Barone.

If true, Barone doesn't say so, at least not publicly. Another lawyer called The Buffalo News on his behalf to say that Barone will not be interviewed about the matter, and he told the newspaper to "cease and desist" in efforts to contact Barone.

Davis' public defender, Kimberly A. Schechter, argued in court papers that Davis hardly steered the bus contract to Barone, as the federal government claims. Barone dealt not with Davis but with the Community Action Organization's staff as they assessed the bids, she indicated.

CAO records show Barone was indeed the best bidder for the Early Head Start program's busing needs -- a conclusion reached when the transportation committee met July 13, 2007, at the CAO's main office at 70 Harvard Place. Davis wasn't present, though emails indicate he was made aware of the results.

The lie detector indicated that Barone gave conflicting accounts about both the bus contract and his loan of the SUV, Schechter wrote, adding that Barone also suggested he barely knew Davis and stated that Davis played no role in Barone winning the contract.

Schechter won her argument that the government's allegation that Davis delivered the bus deal to Barone, and Barone in turn delivered the Navigator to Davis, should not be allowed at Davis' corruption trial. It's scheduled to begin with jury selection in July.

U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny said the deal for the Lincoln Navigator, as well as other government evidence that goes beyond the allegations in the indictment of Davis, should be excluded because it would create a "trial within a trial."

Skretny also limited information that Davis pleaded guilty to pocketing campaign contributions and filing false financial-disclosure reports with the state Board of Elections. The guilty plea thrust Davis out of office in November 2009.

>Conflict of interest

The public corruption evidence against Davis centers on his alleged practice of extracting money, more than $40,000, from the nonprofit agencies to which he granted city-government "discretionary funds." Discretionary funds are akin to the member items, also called pork, that state lawmakers lavish on do-good groups in their districts.

To Common Cause/New York, the government watchdog based in New York City, member items are a bad practice, and Davis was involved in a clear conflict that should have been disclosed.

"This is a blatant conflict of interest which undermines the public trust in government," said Brian Paul, research and policy coordinator for Common Cause/NY. "Unfortunately, abuse of discretionary funding by unscrupulous individuals is a problem we see repeated again and again in Albany and local legislatures around the state.

"Eliminating member items is a simple, straightforward way to remove this perennial source of corruption," Paul said. "Public service is a privilege, not an opportunity for personal gain, or quid pro quo for a car."

>No inkling of deal

The other directors had no inkling that Davis was driving a vehicle supplied to him by one of their vendors, according to Joseph V. Sedita, a lawyer for the Community Action Organization who works at the Hodgson Russ firm.

"Anything the CAO knows about a vehicle provided by Barone came to us the way it came to you," Sedita told The News, "in the filings that were made in the criminal case."

The CAO's executive director, L. Nathan Hare, told The News to contact the organization's lawyers for comment about this story. So did the current president of its board of directors, John Calvin Davis, a former chief of staff to the Erie County Legislature's Democratic majority and a brother to Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the Buffalo Democrat who heads Grassroots.

As for how the directors could hire a bus company whose owner had owned no buses and possessed no experience running such a company, the CAO board itself will say nothing.

Sedita, however, offered a couple of explanations:

"They didn't know about that at the time," he said of Barone's inexperience; and few companies were interested in the business.

"This was not exactly the kind of work that had people falling all over each other to get," Sedita said.

On its website, the CAO says its directors' meetings are open to the public, so The News asked for minutes of meetings when the bus service was discussed. Also, the organization says in filings with the IRS that it makes its conflict of interest policy available to members of the public who request it, so the newspaper requested that, too.

"I don't see any reason why you shouldn't have full access to all that stuff," Sedita said.

But days later he said he would not in fact forward the documents.

"They are not things that are released," Sedita said.

>Numerous problems

The Community Action Organization dropped Barone's company after just two years, before the start of the 2009-10 academic year. Letters between lawyers at the time indicate Barone wanted more money, but the CAO had seen "numerous problems with Buffalo Bus Lines," a Hodgson Russ lawyer responded in August 2009. Buffalo Bus Lines had lost track of children and its drivers had fought with parents, the lawyer wrote.

In the years that he led the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's field office in Buffalo, Stephen T. Banko III found many incidences of the City of Buffalo's misuse of federal dollars. Now retired, he still hears of continuing oddities in Buffalo.

What does the Lincoln Navigator saga say about the way Davis, as president of the CAO, did business?

"It's not business. Business isn't done that way," Banko said.

"I don't know what arrangements were made and what the quid pro quos were. But you can assume that if a guy is going to transport cargo as important as young kids to Head Start that you would have some criteria that he would need in order to qualify. And one of those criteria would not necessarily be that you provided a vehicle free of charge to the president of the board. That's not business. That's something else," he said.