Sounding a little like a president who wonders about the meaning of “is,” Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown has testified under oath that he doesn’t remember if he had a conversation in which he sought to shake down a Cleveland developer who wanted to build a $12 million housing complex in Buffalo.
The mayor’s confusion appeared during a deposition in July over allegations in a civil lawsuit that he and others were engaged in a “pay-to-play” scheme. The developer, NRP Properties, claims the housing deal died over Brown’s anger with the company’s refusal to grant an $80,000 contract to a longtime ally of the mayor, the Rev. Richard A. Stenhouse.
Brown has denied any corruption and suggested that public policy concerns undermined the housing project. Through his lawyers, he insists that he never demanded or in any way insisted on a contract with the builder. Stenhouse separately settled a lawsuit filed by NRP for a reported $200,000 in 2012.
In the deposition, Brown also said he knew nothing about the meaning of an email from then-Economic Development Commissioner Brian Reilly in which the commissioner states only one issue was holding up Common Council approval of the project: Stenhouse and his contract with NRP.
“If that happens,” Reilly’s email says, “presumably the file could be introduced for passage today at the Council.” NRP claims the email plainly refers to a pay-to-play deal. Brown testified that he didn’t know what “if that happens” refers to and categorically denied wrongdoing. “That has never been the case with any project. It would not be the case with this project.”
It is troubling for anyone who wants to take the mayor at his word that he didn’t similarly deny demanding a contract for Stenhouse in return for endorsing the housing project. Instead, he testified, “I don’t recall that exact conversation.”
It could be true that he doesn’t remember, of course, but doesn’t it seem that anyone who simply does not engage in that kind of conduct could easily say “no”? In that light, a skeptic might well believe that Brown had offered a particularly wily response to an unwelcome question.
It doesn’t help, of course, that all around New York, pay-to-play has practically been business as usual. It’s in the political oxygen around this state. When some politicians – not Brown, we hope – say they don’t remember a conversation such as NRP alleges, taxpayers would be forgiven for wondering if the reason is because so many such conversations are occurring that they’re hard to single out.
This is only a civil suit, and the mayor’s lawyers have a request pending to dismiss it. It could all go away. What would be less easy to shake is the uneasy feeling that comes when the mayor of New York’s second-largest city swears under oath that he can’t remember if he had a conversation in which he was proposing a corrupt agreement. That’s a very bad memory.