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New information on comptroller’s role in contract with donor raises red flags

This is why, even if their intentions are honorable, public officials should not be soliciting personal assistance from government vendors: It raises suspicions, and in the case of Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw, very reasonable ones, at that.

The question that now has to be answered is whether Mychajliw’s intentions were nefarious or merely foolish. It is a question raised by his own actions and, in fact, his own overreactions.

Did Mychajliw recommend awarding a major contract to a local accounting firm because of its owner’s donations to the comptroller or were those contributions only strangely coincidental? It’s a fair question.

It’s not just that Robert Glaser, chairman of accounting firm Freed Maxick, donated money to Mychajliw’s election campaign; he donated even more to the eventual winner of the contest for county executive, Mark C. Poloncarz. But Glaser also agreed to help pay Mychajliw’s tuition for a monthlong Harvard program for government officials in 2014. Two months later, Glaser’s firm was awarded a $40,000 county contract and even then, that contract was worth far less than the one, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, that Mychajliw originally recommended.

The issue was raised by Timothy Callan, deputy budget director in the Poloncarz administration, and instead of simply denying it, Mychajliw went for the kill, accusing Callan of being a “biased and hyperpartisan political hack.” It was suspiciously disproportionate.

Mychajliw noted that the Ethics Board, which criticized him for soliciting tuition help from Glaser and nine other businessmen and friends, had said it found no evidence that the comptroller rewarded any of the donors with political favors. But there are other worrisome issues.

For example, Mychajliw told the Ethics Board that the selection of Freed Maxick was the recommendation of a separate committee. Callan called that “disingenuous,” since that committee, he said, was stocked with political appointees from his own office. That’s hardly independent.

And, what is more, Board of Ethics Chairman Steven Schwartz said the group believed that even what they knew represented a violation of the law. That, he said, “is why we referred it to the district attorney.”

None of this passes the smell test. It remains possible, of course, that Mychajliw is guilty of nothing more than atrocious judgment, an issue that can be left to the assessment of voters. It doesn’t take a biased political hack to notice the aroma.

What Mychajliw seems unable to recognize – or at least to admit – is that this is all of his own doing. Soliciting personal donations from businessmen with whom the county does business is a red flag that any officeholder should recognize. If Mychajliw – a former television news reporter – didn’t understand that, then he is radically unprepared for public service.

If he did understand it and still solicited those personal donations, he has offered voters compelling evidence that he is unfit for his office. It’s up to the District Attorney’s Office to determine if it goes beyond that.