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Water Authority appointees are also big political donors

The staff comptroller gave $20,000 and counting. The human resources director, $23,000. Some $43,000 came from an agency lawyer.

The Erie County Water Authority's appointed administrators give generously to politicians in need.

By the end of March, 45 non-union managers and lawyers, along with their spouses, had given a combined $408,000 to local and state political funds since taking their Water Authority jobs.

County Legislature candidates benefit, too. In their most recent two-year election cycle, County Legislature candidates accepted $11,400 from the agency's non-union staff, which includes the three commissioners overseeing the organization.

Four former employees said it works like this: Invitations to fundraisers are mailed to the home. A colleague might mention they will attend. A friendly party operative will note candidates worthy of support.

Peer pressure and the fear of losing political friends takes care of the rest.

"If you're getting an $80,000 job, or 90 – you definitely know you're giving," one former staffer told The Buffalo News.

Any employee who owes their job to a political connection could become isolated if they consistently refuse to give back, the employees said.

"They could definitely make your life miserable," one of the former workers told The News.

All asked that their names not be used to avoid repercussions.

The Water Authority says it maintains a hands-off policy regarding political giving.

"The Authority doesn't monitor any of this stuff," said Michael Caputo, the agency's public relations consultant. He said Water Authority bosses don't scrutinize whether workers give to charities or to politicians.

"At the end of the day, the workers have to be qualified for their jobs," Caputo said, adding that he knows of no employee who is not qualified.

The list of non-union administrators includes current and former party leaders, major donors, former elected officials, a former judge and their families and friends. Those working full-time earn between $70,000 and $191,000 a year.

"To get those jobs, you need to be friends with somebody pretty darn high up in the game," said one of the former employees.

James C. Battista is a University at Buffalo political science professor who has studied trends in civil service employment.

"Nobody's going to say this is a great thing," Battista said. "The best spin you can put on any partisan patronage is that, 'Eh, maybe it doesn't hurt anything.' "

"The downside," he said, "is you have people who have to pay to have a job."

The bureaucracy

"The whole system is very unseemly," said Daniel M. Ward, an agency customer and a former Amherst supervisor who says the Water Authority is too immersed in local politics.

He said the agency is similar to the county Board of Elections. Both, he said, employ partisans who "pay their dues" so the parties keep them in their jobs.

Ward doesn't see how the Water Authority, under the current system, will ever be allowed to exist simply as a water agency and not have to double as a party asset. Usually, when one party gouges a state agency or public authority for its own benefit, the other party will call them out on it, Ward said. But with the Water Authority, both major parties take turns enjoying the lion's share of its benefits, so both parties protect their arrangement, he said.

The authority, with approximately 230 employees, will spend about $97 million this year providing water to more than 550,000 people in Buffalo's suburbs. It also retains the services of myriad consultants and raises its rates nearly every year.

The bureaucracy starts with an executive director. Then there's a deputy executive director, a director of operations, a director of administration and a deputy administrative director. The authority employs a director of human resources, a coordinator of employee relations, an employee benefits specialist and a director of equal employment opportunity. It has a comptroller, a cash manager, an assistant manager for accounting, a business office manager, an assistant business office manager and a risk manager. There's an authority secretary and a secretary for the authority secretary.

From nearly all of those salaries, political donations flow.

The total of $408,000 in political contributions from the non-union employees since they got their jobs may be low because more than a third of them started work prior to Jan. 1, 2006, when the state Board of Elections began posting campaign finance reports for county and municipal races online.

Some appointees average hundreds of dollars a month in donations. Take Joseph T. Burns, for example. With the blessing of Republican Chairman Nicholas Langworthy, Burns in April 2015 became "secretary to the authority," a plum patronage position. In a break from the past, Burns also serves as the general counsel. Over the three years of his employment, Burns donated $15,829 to assorted Republican causes, which includes the $335 he gave Republican candidates for the Legislature's 2017 election.

From his annual salary of around $149,000, Burns gave an average $450 a month to the GOP.

For those with longstanding political involvement, their campaign giving didn't start at the moment they collected their first Water Authority paycheck. Daniel Michnik, for example, is the Republican Party chairman in Clarence and a Water Authority "administrative assistant,'' a job that paid him about $84,000 last year. Michnik has donated at least $5,166 to political accounts since taking the job in February 2016, or about $200 a month. But he donated at least $6,900 in the years before the Water Authority hired him, according to state records.

The News asked the authority for comments from Burns and Michnik but received no response.

Pols at the top

The example is set at the top, by the three part-time commissioners who form the water agency's governing board. In practice, they are selected by the party chairmen and ratified by the County Legislature. Typically, they are politically active and reached into their wallets long before taking a post atop the Water Authority.

Earl L. Jann Jr., a Republican who last year moved from Water Authority chairman into the better-paying post of executive director, has donated nearly $16,000 to various Republican accounts since he started collecting an agency paycheck in 2013.

Like Jann, Jerome D. Schad, the Democratic Party chairman in Amherst, contributed to campaign funds before he became a water commissioner. But Schad has given more than $19,000 since his name appeared on the payroll in 2013.

Robert Anderson, a former highway superintendent in Amherst, gave $6,262, or roughly $2,100 a year from his $22,500 commissioner's salary over the last three years.

With the Republican Anderson leaving the Water Authority board this year, Democrats in March arranged for politically connected lawyer Mark S. Carney to replace him and give their party a ruling majority on the board, meaning Democrats could take most of the patronage and perks.

Like the water commissioners before him, Carney long ago established himself as a friend of his party. He and his law firm donated more than $25,000 to Democratic accounts over the last five years.

Lawmakers benefit

In January, as the sun started to set on Republican control of the Water Authority, the two Republican commissioners gave their Republican-appointed executive director, Jann, a contract making it too expensive to fire him. When The News revealed it would cost $300,000 to $400,000 to fire Jann without cause this year, many county lawmakers reacted angrily. Carney's appointment, which lawmakers had to approve, gave them a springboard to complain about the Authority's patronage-soaked nature and to say it was time to end business as usual.

New golden parachute protects Erie County Water Authority boss

Aside from receiving campaign contributions from Water Authority employees, legislators rely on the good will of their party leaders to help win re-election every two years. But for a few days in March, lawmakers seemed willing to buck the system. They talked about freezing the appointment for 90 days, during which time a panel of experts would determine how to reform the Water Authority or end its existence by folding it into county government.

They also talked of installing one of the other candidates who hadn't been selected by – as three party insiders told The News – Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner.

Then came the vote. Ten of the 11 lawmakers approved Carney's selection. The symbiosis that exists between the parties, the Legislature and the Water Authority survived.

Legislator Patrick Burke, a South Buffalo Democrat, was among those willing to lambaste the authority over the Jann contract. But Burke then joined most of the others in a vote for Carney, and he rebuked fellow Democrat Thomas Loughran for suggesting a 90-day delay.

Burke, whose County Legislature campaign account included $340 from the non-union employees, says those donations did not sway his vote. He says Carney was clearly the best of the three candidates. And he agreed with the logic that rejecting Carney would have rewarded the Republican commissioners who gave Jann his golden parachute; Anderson would have been retained until a replacement was named.

"I think the biggest corrupting influence in all of government is campaign finance. Elected officials have to spend way too much time raising money," said Burke, who is running for the State Assembly in a special election later this month.

But anyone who takes a campaign contribution and yet can't vote based on their own conscience doesn't belong in politics, Burke said when The News asked whether county lawmakers should take money from an agency in their purview.

"Someone's campaign contribution does not determine what I do as an elected official," he said.

Generous lawyers

Workers who had to pass a test to get their Water Authority jobs tended to give the least. Of the 50 non-union employees on the payroll last year, The News found just five who never made a political contribution, according to state Board of Elections records. The five work in positions in which civil service tests are required. One was hired after a national search to fill a post that requires a high set of skills to safeguard water. Paul J. Whittam, the director of water quality, is not enrolled in a political party.

The non-givers stand in stark contrast with the Authority's most generous crew – the legal staff. The authority employed six lawyers in 2017, aside from Burns, the secretary and general counsel. The six were Republicans and Democrats, full-time and part-time, and they have given some $125,000 to political causes since taking their agency jobs. Four of the top six political contributors at the authority were lawyers who have given more than $20,000 since they were hired.

Said one of the former employees: Anyone who takes a legal post at the authority without recognizing the need to contribute to politicians doesn't deserve a law degree.

The six lawyers include: the son of a former state senator; the daughter of a former surrogate judge; a former judge and major Democratic Party fund raiser; the wife of a large-scale GOP donor; and a lawyer who became a City Court judge in January.

Then there's a veteran municipal lawyer who also serves as counsel for four towns and the County Legislature.

Republican Ronald P. Bennett of Holland has given more since joining the Water Authority than any other employee. The News found he has given $43,255. But Bennett, who began his Water Authority job in 2001, acknowledged that tally is low.

He's always been an active contributor, he said, going back to his days as a town attorney for Holland in the 1970s. Today, as one of the county's most experienced municipal lawyers, Bennett said he contributes because he likes the candidates he supports, and he believes in the Republican Party.

He said he has never felt compelled to give in order to keep government jobs he has held for decades.

"That's never been true for me," he said. "I know municipal law."

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