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Erie County comptroller's race pits accountant against incumbent

Vanessa Glushefski is betting that professional experience and her credentials as a certified public accountant and lawyer will matter more than  Stefan Mychaliw's name recognition, campaign wealth and careful cultivation of community connections in their race for county comptroller.

"Over and over again what I see, and in the responses from the agencies he's audited, he's shown a lack of professionalism," said Glushefski, the Democratic candidate.

Mychajliw, meanwhile, believes his work and accomplishment as an opposing-party watchdog to Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz, will win over voters who see him as a champion for taxpayers.

"People do not want a hand-picked puppet in the Comptroller's Office," said Mychaliw, the Republican running for his second four-year term.

He likened a Democratic comptroller to "a fox guarding the hen house."

Glushefski, a legislative director for Democratic Assemblywoman Monica Wallace of Lancaster,  said she decided to run for office after realizing that the watchdog keeping an eye on the county's $1.7 billion budget had no experience in finance or auditing.

"While the incumbent claims to be a 'watchdog,' the fact is that he has high political hopes and no skills to back them up," she said in response to a Buffalo News questionnaire. "As a result, fraud and waste persist under his watch."

Glushefski, a certified public accountant who earned her law degree from the University at Buffalo Law School, served for four months as Wallace's legislative director at the start of this year before deciding to run for the comptroller's seat. She has spent much of her campaign contrasting her background against that of Mychaliw, a former WGRZ reporter.

He also is known for making attention-grabbing statements, such as references to "smoke and mirrors," failing to "pass the smell test" and "stealing from taxpayers," comments that Glushefski criticizes.

"I can tell you that when I'm with people out there, a lot of people have met Stefan Mychajliw, but they don't like him," said Glushefski, 36.  "I don't think that he's fooling anyone."

The Democratic challenger has expressed interest in social justice and said her work history demonstrates that commitment.

Her campaign also took a swipe at Mychajliw's propensity for out-of-office activities, stating that a Freedom of Information Law request of Mychajliw's parking garage and door-swipe records show he's away from the office at least 10 weeks a year.

Mychajliw and his campaign responded by saying that such records are deeply flawed "fake facts" and show a basic lack of understanding about how such mechanisms are easily bypassed, as well as noting legitimate work as comptroller takes him out into the community.

"Broke, unknown, desperate individuals say bizarre things," said Mychajliw, 43.

Mychajliw's record

Mychajliw's campaign touts a "proven record of success" since becoming comptroller in 2013.

The accomplishments: promoting more transparency in government, including the audit of his own office; reforming county banking by consolidating the county's banking business and other measures; and serving as a check on the county executive's administration and politicians "screwing up" county growth opportunities.

Mychajliw arranged a widely supported bailout loan to the financially desperate Town of Evans in December. He has also weighed in on the Erie County Medical Center borrowing "scheme" and criticism of a convention center study.

But his greatest asset may be his public outreach campaign, which seems to run year round.

"I think people respect the fact that I work hard for taxpayers, and I work hard to earn every single vote," he said. "No one will outwork me. No one."

Mychajliw has been involved in several controversies.

The Erie County Board of Ethics charged Mychajliw with 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 in 2014. Mychajliw pointed out that the District Attorney's Office found no basis for criminal wrongdoing in the matter.

"I'm damn proud to have an Ivy League education that makes me a better comptroller," he said.

The Buffalo Urban League also sued Mychajliw last year after the Comptroller's Office conducted a review of Urban League and determined the county had been overbilled by tens of thousands of dollars. Mychajliw went on to  accuse the agency with either "gross mismanagement" or "outright fraud," conclusions not stated in the report.

The Urban League's suit was dismissed.

"When you steal from taxpayers, there will be consequences," he said. "I cannot control how others react to my holding them accountable."

Then earlier this year, Comptroller's Office employees were threatened with loss of pay after an employee found a bedbug in her work space, and Mychajliw sent all his workers home without getting prior permission to do so. After some negotiation, the employees were ultimately paid.

More recently, Mychajliw invited county employees to use the county's Whistleblower Hotline to report bedbug sightings and concerns.

"They should not have to work in a scummy, bedbug-infested environment," he said.

Poloncarz has accused Mychajliw of producing audits and reports that have less meaning than "a blank piece of paper," while Glushefski has asserted that Mychajliw has not conducted meaningful audits of either the Sheriff's Office or the Erie County Water Authority, both controlled by Republicans.

Mychajliw pointed out that his office has undertaken five audits of the Sheriff's Office, two of which will be completed in November. The office also conducted a single audit of the Water Authority.

"I have audited Sheriff Howard more than other comptrollers have since he's been in office," he said.

But Glushefski counters said that his office hasn't done more substantive audits related to overtime and other costs.

"He says he's done the audits, but he hasn't done the audits that count, and that's the problem," she said. "And I wouldn't even call them audits, by the way."

For all the rhetoric, the election may come down to each campaign's ability to  reach voters and motivate them to cast their ballots on Election Day.

Mychajliw said he has raised more than $130,000 toward this year's campaign. His finance disclosure reports as of Friday showed $54,437 raised as of his 32-day pre-general election filing, on top of the $73,638 he already had sitting in his campaign account at the start of the year.

Much of that money has been spent on TV commercials, which have begun regularly airing during prime time.

He has been endorsed by the Republican, Conservative, Independence and Reform parties, as well as police and blue collar unions and the Good Government Club, a group of "Italian-American businesses and professionals acting in a nonpartisan capacity to advance good government."

Glushefski said she has raised about $70,000 toward this year's campaign, including a family loan of $25,000. Her finance disclosure reports as of Friday showed $44,359, excluding the loan, as of her 11-day pre-general election filing.

That has been spent that on a variety of non-TV, radio and digital media outreach, though her campaign has not ruled out TV commercials closer to Election Day.

Glushefski has been endorsed by Democratic, Women's Equality and Working Families parties, as well as 12 unions and 10 other community advocacy groups.


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