Joseph A. Mascia has an air of success. He drives to his Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority board meeting in a 2014 Cadillac, he donates thousands of dollars to local political campaigns – including his own – and he talks about the importance of helping other people.
But when he drives home, Mascia heads to the BMHA’s Marine Drive Apartments, where he faces a mountain of debt. His unpaid state and federal tax bills, as well as liens filed against him and his onetime company, Mascia Concrete, totaled more than $150,000 over the past 17 years, records show. He also has more than $7,000 in outstanding bills from his past political campaigns, records show. Mascia says he’s paying the debt off “a little at a time.”
The embattled BMHA tenant commissioner and Common Council candidate, under fire for racist comments made about Buffalo’s African-American leaders, once was a private citizen, running a concrete company, and, along with his wife, raising a daughter in a home they owned on Buffalo’s West Side.
But no more. The 70-year-old tenant in public housing is now a candidate for public office, and his debt is becoming part of the Fillmore District race.
“Someone can fall behind once in a while, but this is a lifelong pattern,” said Fillmore District Councilman David A. Franczyk, the man Mascia is hoping to unseat.
“He’s a lifelong serial deadbeat,” Franczyk said of Mascia. “He would sell out even BMHA residents. He has no sense of shame and remorse. Lying is easy for him.
“How are you going to manage city finances when you don’t pay your own debts?” Franczyk asked. “It scares me. He’s a lifetime chiseler. He is not a good person. His deadbeat behavior is another word for thieving. A person like that, I think, could easily be bribed.”
Mascia dismissed Franczyk’s comments, saying: “I don’t care what he says about me.”
But Mascia said his financial troubles have not affected his ability to serve on the BMHA board and would not affect his ability to serve on the Common Council.
“I take my fiduciary responsibility to the authority seriously,” he said. “What I owe has never interfered with what I do as housing commissioner.”
Mascia said his life took a sharp downward turn in the late 1990s. His concrete company, he said, sank into a financial quagmire after one of the major jobs he worked on didn’t pay him, and he therefore couldn’t pay his vendors.
Around the same time, there was a nasty truck accident on the Youngmann Highway, he said. Mascia ended up with a broken leg and hip.
He lost his house as well as his company. With no home, no job and lots of bills, Mascia’s family in the late 1990s moved into the low-income Marine Drive Apartments on the city’s waterfront.
“I had a business. A house. We had a beautiful daughter. We were living the life, just like you’d see on TV,” Mascia said recently. “Then things started to fall apart.
”I was lucky,” he continued. “When I applied to Marine Drive, a friend of mine was moving out. It was a godsend.”
After his business fell apart, Mascia said, he worked for a decade or so as a cement tradesman for the Buffalo Board of Education until he hurt his shoulder in 2011 and could no longer do such physical work. Mascia said his wife also has worked for many years doing clerical work to help support the family. But financial issues persisted and new bills went unpaid.
Debts pile up
The federal government filed about $34,200 in tax liens against Mascia and his former business from 2004 to 2010 for tax bills owed from 1997 to 2007, records show.
The state filed $23,500 in tax liens from 1999 to 2013, for taxes owed from 1996 to 2009.
Another $23,300 judgment was filed by the state Department of Labor for unemployment contributions owed during 1997 and 1998. The state Board of Elections filed about $5,400 in judgments against him from 2013 to 2015.
Also, there are some $75,000 in judgments filed by private firms against Mascia and his former company, including a $50,000 judgment from the Buffalo law firm of Napier, Fitzgerald & Kirby filed in 2008 for non-payment of services, according to documents filed with the Erie County Clerk’s Office.
A spokesman for the law firm declined comment. Mascia said he does not know what that judgment is about.
“I don’t know anything about that,” he said.
Also, Mascia’s past failed political campaigns – in 2011 for County Legislature and in 2012 for State Assembly – still owe some $7,000 to vendors and others.
Among the vendors that wasn’t paid was Rosewood Signs of Tonawanda, a small, family-owned business.
Camille McOwen, whose family owns the sign company, said at one point she emailed Mascia about his unpaid $2,000 bill. He apologized for the delay, but didn’t pay the bill, she said. After many phone calls and a planned meeting Mascia didn’t attend, Owen said, the company took Mascia to Small Claims Court. Again, she said, he didn’t show up.
The court garnished his wages. That got the firm $7.24 a month from his salary as BMHA commissioner, she said.
Given the interest accruing on the bill, Mascia still owes about $2,000, she said.
Mascia this week told The Buffalo News he hopes to be able to pay Rosewood Signs off soon.
“The debt is there. I can’t hide from it,” he said of his financial woes. “I’m not walking away from it. It’s being paid off. But you know how debt is. They file liens. You pay if off a little at a time.”
Mascia said on Friday that he believes a portion of the tax liens filed against him were paid off, but that he had to check with his accountant. On Tuesday, Mascia said he still owed the full federal lien, but that the state tax lien was down to $96. The state Department of Taxation and Finance, however, said the $96 reflects a personal tax bill against the Mascias. Mascia’s former company still owes $19,640 in back taxes, according to a spokesman for the department.
Facing his problems
When discussing his financial woes, Mascia seems to draw a parallel between the way he’s handled his financial troubles and the current controversy over his racist comments.
In both cases, Mascia said, he didn’t walk away.
He could have filed for bankruptcy, he said, but didn’t think that was the right thing to do.
Similarly, Mascia said, after The Buffalo News obtained a copy of recording in which he is heard using the N-word to refer to the city’s African-American leaders, he faced up to his mistake.
Mascia added that his financial problems put him in the same situation as 90 percent of people in public housing, which has helped him to understand the plight of others.
“All that’s happened to me – it’s been one thing after another –I’ve risen above,” Mascia said. “That is why I can relate to what happens to people. I’ve had these problems. That is why I can identify.”
Since 2006, Mascia has been an elected tenant representative on the BMHA’s board of commissioners, and he has been an outspoken advocate for better public housing in Buffalo.
He is currently fighting to stay in office, as the BMHA as well as tenant groups call for him to resign.
Since 2011, Mascia has run unsuccessfully for Buffalo School Board, the Erie County Legislature and the State Assembly.
“I felt if I could get out there and work in the Legislature or Assembly, I could do more for more people,” he said.
Mascia was prosecuted for not filing campaign disclosure reports in the County Legislature and Assembly races, and given a conditional discharge by City Court Judge Thomas P. Amodeo, who noted how unusual it is for charges to be filed in such cases. Mascia said the prosecution was an attempt by the BMHA to silence him.
The campaign reports Mascia eventually filed in those races show he raised $23,438 running for County Legislature, and spent about $30,000. Mascia’s campaign paid about $2,000 to his daughter, who was listed as a consultant.
“My daughter was out of work at the time, and if I could hire her, I would,” Mascia said. “She’s been around me long enough to know things needed in a campaign.”
When the 2011 County Legislature campaign was over, records show, Mascia’s campaign still had bills to pay.
As of this month, the campaign still owed about $4,900 – much of it for printing done by a company that is a subsidiary of The Buffalo News. The campaign owes another $3,900 to Mascia, who loaned money to his own campaign.
In the 2012 Assembly contest, records show, Mascia spent about $13,000. His daughter again served as a campaign consultant, getting paid about $2,200.
The Assembly race also ended with unpaid bills. As of this month, Mascia himself was owed about $1,150 from the campaign. Another $2,460 was owed to vendors – most of it to Rosewood Signs.
Beyond the money Mascia loaned his campaign, he made another $6,610 in cash and in-kind contributions to his own campaigns since 2011 and another $5,000 in cash contributions to other politicians and political campaigns, campaign records show.
He contributed $900 to the Democratic Party and $1,100 to Friends of (County Executive Mark C.) Poloncarz. There were $700 in contributions to Buffalo Assemblyman Michael Kearns and $650 to Mayor Byron W. Brown’s campaign funds.
Mascia was asked if he sees any problem with making political contributions to his campaign and others, at the same time he has so much outstanding debt.
“It wasn’t an exorbitant amount of money,” he said. “I have to run a campaign.”
He also added that the Cadillac he drives is leased – with a co-signer.
“My father once told me, ‘If you have to go though life, do it in a Cadillac,’ ” Mascia said.