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Davis' thievery was surprisingly easy

What shocked federal prosecutors was not that Brian C. Davis stole taxpayers money while serving on the Buffalo Common Council.

It was how easily he did it.

Like a lot of city lawmakers, Davis used his individual pot of city and federal money -- he controlled $100,000 in discretionary funding each year -- to help fund community groups in his district.

Unlike most lawmakers, he also demanded a share be kicked back to him or his friends.

"I've never seen a case like it," said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. "He was literally lining his pockets with taxpayers' money."

Davis admitted stealing $48,000 as part of a plea deal Tuesday detailing how he personally benefited from the public funds he oversaw.

The former Ellicott District lawmaker, who until now had maintained his innocence, pleaded guilty in federal court to a single felony count of stealing from an organization receiving federal funds.

He faces up to 10 years in prison, but federal guidelines recommend a much shorter sentence of 10 to 16 months. He also will be required to pay back the $48,000 he stole from the city.

Hochul said one of the things that surprised him about Davis' case was the lack of oversight and accountability within the Council's discretionary funds program.

"This marks one of the first times in memory that an elected official stole money in his care," he said.

Davis, 42, said very little during his appearance Tuesday but acknowledged his wrongdoing during a series of questions by Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.

"Did you do what you're charged with?" Skretny asked at one point.

"Yes, your honor," Davis responded.

As part of his plea deal, the former lawmaker admitted stealing money from local community groups that received city and federal funding from his Council office.

Davis, in turn, arranged for them to return a portion of the money to him or his friends.

Prosecutors said the amounts he stole over the four-year period ranged from a low of about $8,000 one year to a high of about $18,000 another year.

"We traced the funds to Davis' bank account," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell T. Ippolito Jr. "A crime was committed once he put it in his pocket."

Prosecutors said three groups were involved in Davis' scheme, but it's unclear they were aware of the illegal nature of what he was doing and therefore were not charged.

The groups are the Community Action Organization of Erie County, Back to Basics Outreach Ministry and the Pratt Willert School 47 Policy Board.

Davis, as part of his plea agreement, will be given the chance to cooperate with the government's ongoing investigations at City Hall.

The investigations, led by the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office, are centered around the millions of dollars in federal aid that flow each year to City Hall.

The federal agent overseeing those investigations said Davis' conviction should be viewed by corrupt public officials as a warning that the FBI is looking for them.

"They will be rooted out, and those individuals will be brought to justice," said Steven L. Halter, head of the FBI's public corruption unit in Buffalo.

Reaction to Davis' guilty plea ranged from a no comment from Mayor Byron W. Brown, one of Davis' former political allies, to a suggestion from one lawmaker that a wrong was righted.

"I'm just glad justice was sought and brought," said Council President Richard A. Fontana. "People can't think of the city as their personal bank account."

Davis' guilty plea marked a sharp but not entirely surprising change in his defense strategy. He had argued from Day One that he would fight the allegations against him at trial.

Jury selection in his case was scheduled to begin in two months.

Davis' federal conviction is not his first run-in with the law. He resigned his Council seat in late 2009 after pleading guilty to pocketing campaign contributions and filing false financial-disclosure reports with the state.

His misdemeanor conviction followed a 2009 Buffalo News investigation that found Davis had a history of not paying his bills or taxes. It also found his claim to a degree from Trinity College was untrue.

Davis also was implicated in the One Sunset scandal when it was discovered he had written a bad check to cover the rent at the now-shuttered Gates Circle restaurant and bar.

Davis will be sentenced Sept. 5.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com