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Erie County comptroller is cited for ethics violation

Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw violated the county’s ethics laws when he asked county-connected businessmen to cover nearly $12,000 in tuition costs so he could attend a Harvard University business program, the county’s Board of Ethics has found.

The board drew its conclusion after reviewing his 2014 financial-disclosure form. Although the Board of Ethics found no evidence that Mychajliw received the tuition payment “gifts” in exchange for rewards or preferential treatment by his office, the board said the comptroller personally solicited favors that could be seen as influencing his office.

“What was reported, we believe, was in violation of the law,” said Board of Ethics Chairman Steven Schwartz, “which is why we referred it to the district attorney.”

Mychajliw strongly denied the board’s conclusion, pointing out that while he sought tuition assistance from people who do business with the county, the initiating and approving of their contracts are done by the county executive and the County Legislature, not the Comptroller’s Office.

What’s more, he said, those contracts are typically awarded through a competitive bidding process.

He also noted that he volunteered the information on his 2014 financial-disclosure form in an effort to be “open, honest and transparent,” and to follow the disclosure form’s requirements, but that he never believed that the contributions were intended to influence his work.

“I have zero influence over county contracts in Erie County,” Mychajliw said.

The ethics board disagreed.

Schwartz said that given the comptroller’s authority over audits, and who does and doesn’t receive scrutiny, the possibility of future conflicts of interest and ethical problems between these businessmen and the comptroller is a problem. In its letter to Mychajliw, Schwartz said the board has “significant concerns in this area.”

The people who contributed toward Mychajliw’s tuition for the Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education Program for Executives in State and Local Government included:

• Randall K. Best, general manager of Gernatt Asphalt Products, a supplier to the county’s Department of Public Works.

• Paul F. Ciminelli, CEO of Ciminelli Real Estate.

• Kent P. Frey, owner of Frey Electric, a county contractor.

• Daniel R. Gernatt Jr., owner of Gernatt Asphalt Products.

• Robert M. Glaser, chairman of Freed Maxick, an accounting firm currently completing a risk assessment of county government and chairman of the Citizens Salary Review Commission, appointed by County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

• Brian J. Lipke, former chairman of Gibraltar Industries.

• Hormoz Mansouri, developer and major political contributor.

• Paul Marinaccio, owner of Accadia Site Contracting, which contracts with the county for road construction.

• Carl P. Paladino, owner of Ellicott Development, which holds long-standing leases with the county.

• Joseph N. Weiss, entrepreneur and former Clarence Town Board member.

Paladino said he encouraged the comptroller to attend the Harvard program and to reach out to him and others for financial assistance. “It’s a good program,” Paladino said. “I’ve sent other people, including Brian Higgins. I paid for him. I think that’s a public service. I think corporations should afford educational opportunities to good public officials.”

In the case of now-Rep. Higgins, who was a County Legislature staff member at the time and not yet an elected official, Paladino said he and M&T Bank Chairman and CEO Robert G. Wilmers gave money to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, which set up a scholarship fund to cover the costs of Higgins’ Harvard tuition. Paladino added that it makes sense to ensure that people elected to government have the training they need to succeed.

Higgins’ chief of staff, Charles E. Eaton, said the yearlong Harvard program in which Higgins enrolled in the mid-1990s was different from the certificate program that Mychajliw attended. Higgins’ program was designed to fast-track a master’s degree in public administration.

Mychajliw said he attended his Harvard program for government executives in July 2014. He was accepted late and had only two weeks to raise the money he needed. He contributed some money himself but did not want to spend taxpayer money for his tuition, nor did he want to dip into his election campaign accounts, he said, so he made personal calls to members of his “kitchen cabinet” to send money to Harvard on his behalf.

Each of the 10 men who agreed to help contributed an average of $1,000, he said.

Schwartz and Mychajliw agreed that a separate trust account, ideally funded by foundations, should be set up so that other high-ranking county officials can attend the Harvard program.

Mychajliw and his staff took issue with the financial-disclosure form that requires “payments to third parties on your behalf” to be listed, when county ethics law does not use similar language. He also said the disclosure requirement is worded in a confusing and oddly self-incriminating manner.

The comptroller said he felt compelled to list his third-party contributions even though he never thought they influenced his job performance. “You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Mychajliw said. “I erred on the side of caution.”

Schwartz praised Mychajliw for his openness and transparency in dealing with the Board of Ethics. He also said that some language in the financial-disclosure form should be reviewed and possibly reworked in the future.

Finally, he pointed out that while the Board of Ethics issues findings and makes recommendations, it does not have the authority to impose any penalties.

Click here to read the Board of Ethics’ findings letter and Mychajliw’s response.