The Grassroots political club has worked to elect dozens of politicians over the past three decades, including Mayor Byron W. Brown.
Now the East Side organization finds itself under the microscope of state and federal investigators, who two weeks ago took documents from the organization’s headquarters using a warrant.
Authorities haven’t disclosed the target of the raid, but several sources have said the action grew out of the state and federal probes against G. Steven Pigeon, a former Democratic Party chairman and political operative who is charged with political corruption. Investigators are believed to be following a money trail that includes campaign finance reports for Pigeon, Grassroots and others.
While the Grassroots club has had significant political clout, public records that The Buffalo News searched found that it is not a big-time money machine. It took in some $202,000 in contributions and related payments over the past 10 years, according to State Board of Elections reports.
But Grassroots’ influence goes beyond the walls of its Genesee Street storefront office, touching four other operations. When those other organizations are included, the total political money increases to almost $375,000, The News analysis found.
The common denominator of those organizations is Maurice L. Garner, the Grassroots founder who more recently helped create a Grassroots offshoot, Be the Change. He also helped found the Urban Chamber of Commerce, which investigators also raided on June 15. State and federal agents that day also searched Garner’s Meech Street home, where his two consulting businesses, Garner Associates and Urban Vision for Tomorrow, are based.
The News analysis found Mayor Brown is the biggest financial supporter to these organizations, using his political war chest to make make some $58,000 in contributions and payments combined over the past decade to the two committees, two corporations and one nonprofit agency Garner helped create.
The News analysis of records also found the Grassroots finance reports appear incomplete. No contributions were reported by the organization for 2010 or 2011, and no spending reported for 2011.
But by cross-checking the contribution reports Grassroots filed with spending reports that candidates and political committees filed, The News discovered contributions and spending that Grassroots failed to report.
In addition, Garner’s consulting businesses received payments from private firms that are not required to be recorded on campaign reports, such as the $120,000 LPCiminelli paid Urban Vision to work as a subcontractor on the $1 billion Buffalo schools construction project.
Garner declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Willie N. Morris, the current Grassroots president. The Grassroots treasurer did not return a phone call.
“Grassroots was founded to give a voice to a community that didn’t have a voice,” said Clarence Lott, a former Grassroots member who served as club president for a short time a decade ago. “Due to its early success, Maurice was able to parlay that into an enterprise – a moneymaking opportunity for himself.”
The biggest Grassroots financial backers include Brown and Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, who both used Grassroots as their political springboard.
Brown’s political committee gave the group some $8,500 since 2006, while Peoples-Stokes’ committee donated $6,500 over the past decade, and almost $11,000 going back to 2002, the reports show.
Hundreds of businesses, individuals and other political committees also donated to Grassroots over the years, some apparently heeding the advice of former Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, who once told the New York Times: “I think that a candidate running in Buffalo or for statewide office would be remiss not to sit down with the leadership of Grassroots.”
The Eliot Spitzer-David Paterson gubernatorial ticket contributed $1,510 to Grassroots back in 2003.
The current governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, in 2014 wrote Grassroots a check for $881, records show.
Other local candidates opening their checkbooks in varying degrees to Grassroots in recent years have included Council President Darius G. Pridgen, $2,770; City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder, $2,170; County Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, $960; and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, $325.
Grassroots also is popular with some judicial candidates, as well as some local Congressional and statewide politicians, including New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, whose office was involved in the raid on on Grassroots headquarters June 15. Schneiderman’s political committee gave $500 to Grassroots and another $500 to Be the Change when he first ran for the top New York lawyer post in 2010, records show.
Grassroots is only part of the story.
Garner’s political consulting work, most done through his Garner Associates and Urban Vision for Tomorrow, took in some $100,000 from political candidates and parties since 2006, records show.
His Be the Change committee, records show, took in about $64,000 since it was created in 2010.
Garner once told The Buffalo News he created the organization to focus on candidates supporting an environmentally friendly “green” agenda, but others say he was looking for a way to stay involved after his own involvement with Grassroots waned.
The Urban Chamber of Commerce that Garner helped create also receives support from political committees and candidates – about $15,000 since it was founded in 2013, records show.
Brown is the biggest overall financial backer of these Garner-related organizations.
In addition to $8,540 in donations to Grassroots, the mayor’s political committee contributed $2,500 to the Urban Chamber of Commerce and paid $14,150 to one of Garner’s consulting firms, records show.
The mayor’s Brown for Buffalo committee also gave $33,000 to Garner’s Be the Change committee in 2013 and 2014, when, Brown has said, Garner’s committee was helping with an “educational campaign” the mayor was conducting to let East Side residents know how Buffalo’s economic upswing affects them.
Garner, at the time, said his Be the Change helped with mailers for what Brown dubbed the “I am Buffalo” campaign.
Others donating to the multiple organizations include State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, whose political committee contributed $5,085 to Grassroots and $2,100 to Be the Change since 2011. He also gave $3,500 to the Urban Chamber of Commerce, and paid one of Garner’s sons $1,888 in political consultant fees.
Michele A. Brown, no relation to the mayor, during her unsuccessful bid for Family Court judge in 2015, contributed $1,000 to Grassroots and $500 to the Urban Chamber of Commerce. She also paid Garner Associates $10,200 in political consultant fees.
Former State Supreme Court Judge John A. Michalek donated $250 to Grassroots in 2008 – some of that to get campaign material printed – and paid $7,500 in consultant fees that year to Garner Associates. Michalek resigned from the bench in 2016 after admitting he accepted political favors from Pigeon in exchange for doing Pigeon’s bidding.
Pigeon gave $1,000 to Grassroots while his Landon Associates gave $500 to Be the Change in 2013 and $550 in 2015 to Grassroots.
Grassroots and Be the Change also spent money.
Grassroots reported spending about $156,000 since 2006 and Be the Change reported spending another $51,000 since it was created in 2010, The News found.
Little of this money went directly to candidates. Grassroots since 2006 donated a total of $1,000 to five candidates, including Mayor Brown, Peoples-Stokes, Rochester Mayor Lovely A. Warren and Erie County Legislature candidate Joyce Wilson Nixon. Be the Change gave another $650 to Mayor Brown and Council President Pridgen combined since 2010, the reports show.
Instead of direct payments, Grassroots produces literature and radio commercials on behalf of candidates it supports, helps candidates get signatures on petitions and generally campaigns on their behalf on the city’s East Side. Be the Change had a similar operation, according to campaign reports.
The campaign reports detail what was purchased, and from whom, but not the candidate the purchases are supporting.
Several organization members, however, said the candidates who are supported generally are the ones making contributions and making printing payments to Grassroots or Be the Change. The printing payments generally cover the cost of the political signs and handouts Grassroots and Be the Change distribute in support of the candidates, they said.
Grassroots reported expenses for printing, literature, postage and radio advertising as well as rent, food and holding fundraisers, reports show.
Be the Change reported expenses that included payments to a digital imaging and mailing firm as well as other printing expenses, phone bills, gasoline and food for volunteers. Be the Change also donated $275 to Grassroots, which donated $350 to Be the Change.
The Urban Chamber of Commerce donated $500 to Be the Change and $550 to Grassroots, which donated $500 to the Urban Chamber.
Garner Associates since 2016 contributed $1,250 to Be the Change and $1,100 to Grassroots.
Garner’s Urban Vision contributed $1,000 to Grassroots and $600 to Be the Change, according to campaign finance reports.