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Lack of a policy gave Wanamaker freedom for high-priced habits

Timothy E. Wanamaker lived the good life on the taxpayers’ dime – and not just in the days after attending out-of-state conferences.

There were beachfront hotels, valet parking, laundry service, room service and spa service while the conferences were going on as well as after they ended.

And once back in Buffalo, there were flowers for sick employees, meals at the Buffalo Chophouse and the Empire Grill, and a high-end laptop directly from the Walden Galleria.

All paid for with federal anti-poverty funds.

Wanamaker got himself in hot water – resulting in a federal felony conviction – by pushing the outside of the envelope, remaining at his conference destinations after the sessions ended, then continuing to bill a federally funded city development agency for his personal expenses.

But more often than not, a Buffalo News review of Wanamaker expense records found, Wanamaker’s lavish spending of anti-poverty money also was occurring legally, during the time Wanamaker was actually attending conferences on behalf of the city.

Wanamaker was able to get away with his high-priced habits, The News found, because the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. that funded his travel and related spending had no policy setting spending limits on travel expenses and because the city’s nebulous travel approval process ended with one of Wanamaker’s subordinates apparently being the only person who ever saw the bills.

The News filed Freedom of Information requests with the city and the federal government to learn more about Wanamaker’s spending and who approved it. The FOI requests were filed after Wanamaker pleaded guilty in federal court in November 2011 to illegally charging about $30,000 in personal expenses on his BERC credit card.

The city and its development agency failed to release any documents, but the U.S. Department of Housing Urban Development’s Office of Inspector General released 367 pages detailing Wanamaker’s spending while traveling outside of Buffalo, and while back in the city.

The documents don’t disclose who approved Wanamaker’s spending. But The News learned that in the Brown administration, former Economic Development Commissioner Richard M. Tobe – who is now deputy Erie County executive – reviewed most of the requests Wanamaker made to travel, then forwarded those he recommended for approval to the Mayor’s Office for final OK, typically to Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey. The travel requests, based on one viewed by The News, included preliminary cost estimates, but the figures weren’t necessarily complete or accurate.

Tobe said Wanamaker – who was president of BERC and executive director of Mayor Byron W. Brown’s Office of Strategic Planning – technically reported to the mayor, who was BERC chairman. But Tobe said that he was asked in mid-2006 to review aspects of Wanamaker’s travel for BERC. Prior to that, Tobe said, Wanamaker’s travel requests went directly to the Mayor’s Office.

“The actual approval was done by Steve Casey or the mayor,” Tobe said. “It was my duty to ensure that there was a public purpose for the trip.” Casey, however, described Tobe as Wanamaker’s direct supervisor, who, as such, approved Wanamaker’s travel. He described the role of the Mayor’s Office in the approval process as almost pro forma or perfunctory.

“Recommended requests for travel are forwarded by commissioners to the mayor’s office to verify funding source and to ensure no scheduling conflicts,” Casey responded by email to The News. “… Mr. Wanamaker at that time reported directly to Commissioner Tobe on all economic matters,” Casey said.

Regardless of how the pre-approval process unfolded, neither Tobe nor Casey saw actual expense reports or credit card bills. Neither did the mayor. Apparently the only one who saw Wanamaker’s actual bills and spending records was BERC’s chief finance officer, John Riccione, who worked for Wanamaker and authorized payments.

Riccione was forced out of his job in 2008 by the Brown administration. He has not responded to repeated requests for comment from The News.

Here’s some of what can be gleaned from those HUD documents:

The Las Vegas trip

In the retail world, the International Council of Shopping Centers is a big deal. Its national conferences offer business and government officials a chance to network with industry bigwigs.

The annual spring ICSC convention in Las Vegas is “the biggest retail real estate convention in the world,” said spokesman Jesse Tron. “About 50 percent of deals are consummated or conceived at the convention.”

Wanamaker had attended the regional ICSC conferences in Los Angeles and New York City in November and December 2006, and suggested Brown and Casey accompany him to the national convention in Las Vegas in May 2007. The top official from Bass Pro Shops would be there, and Wanamaker wanted the mayor and deputy mayor to get some face time with him, Casey has previously said. At the time, Bass Pro was still considering coming to Buffalo’s waterfront.

Also at the conference were executives from Kohl’s department store.

Brown and Casey went. Wanamaker and two members of Wanamaker’s staff also attended.

Planning for the May 20-23 conference took months. A travel approval form was submitted to the Mayor’s Office in early April. It stated the travel was for nine nights, from May 18 to 27.

Tobe recommended that the Las Vegas trip be approved but said that he doesn’t recall any reference to nine days of travel.

Casey said the Mayor’s Office granted the approval based on Tobe’s recommendation. Casey didn’t directly respond when asked about the nine days.

Two from the Buffalo group – presumably Brown and Casey – arrived on the 20th, stayed three nights at Caesar’s Palace, and left on the 23rd, documents indicate. The cost of their rooms was not provided in the documents released.

Another room – believed to be for Wanamaker’s two staff members – was booked for five nights at The Mirage, from May 18 to 23, costing about $1,763, or about $350 a night.

Wanamaker also arrived in Las Vegas on May 18, picking up a Hertz rental car – a Lincoln MKX-Prestige Luxury Crossover or similar, according to his itinerary – at about 10:30 that Friday night, then heading to his hotel, The Treasure Island.

Wanamaker was booked in a “Tower Suite” for two guests, according to the hotel confirmation. The basic room cost with tax was $392 per night, plus another $12 a day for Internet access, bringing the daily room rate to $404.

On that first night, there was also room service, the HUD documents show. The food bill came to $95.95.

Other Treasure Island hotel charges during the conference included $22 for spa service and $20.50 for laundry. By the end of the conference, Wanamaker’s total hotel bill alone had reached about $2,700 for the six nights.

But Wanamaker’s spending didn’t stop when the conference ended. Brown, Casey, and Wanamaker’s two staff members were gone, but Wanamaker remained in his $404-a-night Treasure Island suite. He kept the rental car. He continued charging food to his BERC credit card.

It was those last three nights and four days of spending – $1,750 – after the ICSC’s Las Vegas conference that got him in trouble with federal investigators.

The Miami trip

The Buffalo temperature was just about freezing – 34 degrees – on Dec. 11, 2007, when Wanamaker took a $550 flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., then rented a car to his hotel in Miami Beach.

The occasion was the 2007 Opportunity Finance Network Conference, which promised “professional development and networking for … community development specialists that are interested in aligning capital with social, economic, and political justice,” a brochure promoting the conference promised.

While the four-day event focused on improving the lives of the poor, Wanamaker’s accommodations were more befitting the lives of the well-to-do.

Wanamaker was the only city representative at the conference, according to BERC records. Throughout the event, he had a “deluxe” room at the Loew’s Miami Beach, a beachfront hotel costing about $500 a night – a total of $1,556 for the three-night stay.

The morning after the conference ended, when Wanamaker no longer had a legitimate business reason to be in Miami, Buffalo’s economic-development czar left the Loew’s Miami Beach hotel.

He checked into the nearby Ritz-Carlton South Beach. It was pricier than the Loew’s. A two-night stay was $1,289.

In addition, there was a $49.54 breakfast tab at the hotel and $320 in bills from four other restaurants. All charged to BERC, using anti-poverty money.

When Wanamaker left Florida on the 16th, he returned his rental car, which cost BERC $1,067 for six days.

It was the approximately $2,000 billed to BERC after the Florida conference ended that was illegal, federal officials said.

38 trips over two years

Wanamaker was a frequent traveler during much of his five-year tenure as Buffalo’s economic development czar. He took 38 trips at BERC expense from June 1, 2006, to May 2008, with over half – 22 of them – to Washington, D.C., often to meet with HUD officials or lawmakers, city records show. The remaining trips were to 14 different cities from one end of the country to the other.

Brown attended four of the Washington meetings with Wanamaker, as well as an Urban League conference in Atlanta, and shopping center conferences in New York City and Las Vegas, city records show.

Wanamaker’s frequent travel attracted attention in City Hall, but the Brown administration defended the trips, which it said brought new ideas and additional money and investment to Buffalo, and strengthened the city’s relationships and networks with key people in Washington and elsewhere.

The Las Vegas trip, for example, resulted in Kohl’s coming to Buffalo and gave Brown a chance to talk with Bass Pro executives, Casey and Tobe said.

Tobe added that while BERC asked him in mid-2006 to begin reviewing Wanamaker’s travel requests to determine their benefit to Buffalo, he also looked at preliminary cost estimates included in the requests.

None seemed out of line, and nothing about the travel plans or estimates seemed illegal, Tobe said. In addition, Tobe said, he is confident that Wanamaker attended and participated in the conferences he was sent to. Nonetheless, Tobe said, he told Wanamaker at one point that he was traveling too much. “I told him to cut back,” Tobe said.

But in November 2011, more than three years after Wanamaker left city government, he was arrested and eventually pleaded guilty in federal court to stealing government anti-poverty funds. Federal investigators said they identified about a dozen and a half instances where Wanamaker remained at meetings and conference destinations after his business was completed, and used his BERC credit card for personal stays in those cities.

Investigators made no mention of the money Wanamaker spent legally while at conventions, or the work-related expenses charged to his BERC credit card while in Buffalo.

Documents show, for example, that Wanamaker used the credit card to buy a $90 bouquet accompanying a get-well card for one employee, and a $95 basket for another whose mother died. The credit card was used for an $80 order at Dough Bois Pizzeria, a $164 bill at the Empire Grill and a $225 bill at the Buffalo Chophouse.

Other local credit card purchases included a $2,900 Mac Pro laptop purchased from the Apple Store in the Galleria.

Wanamaker, now 48, was sentenced to three years of probation in December 2012. He declined to comment for this article through his Buffalo attorney, James P. Harrington. Brown also declined to comment. Casey responded to one email but declined to comment further.

Meanwhile, BERC, the economic-development agency Wanamaker once headed, is being phased out, with some of its responsibilities shifted to the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency. According to BURA, a travel policy was adopted last month that prohibits extending a stay at a convention site for personal reasons.