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Erie County Water Authority fails to file financial disclosures

The Erie County Water Authority's staff failed to file financial disclosure forms with the county last year, and nobody with the county noticed.

Though the Water Authority falls under state oversight, it is legally required to file disclosure forms with Erie County. The authority did so for years – until last year.

In 2017, authority officials failed to complete any financial disclosure forms meant to monitor and prevent conflicts of interest by key players and policymakers.

"The form was not circulated by staff," said chairman Jerome Schad.

A Water Authority staffer apparently consulted with a county staffer, who wrongly stated the Water Authority was not required to file disclosure forms, which require public employees to list investments, ownership stakes, gifts and positions held the prior year.

"They were misinformed – and we were not informed," said Board of Ethics Chairman Steven Schwartz, referring to the fact that the county's Ethics Board members had no idea this staff-to-staff conversation had taken place.

Water Authority lawyer Margaret Murphy stated at Thursday's Board of Ethics meeting that authority Deputy Director Robert J. Lichtenthal Jr. completed his county disclosure form, and had it notarized, but did not submit it because no one asked for it.

Though no 2016 disclosure forms were filed last year by the Water Authority, no Board of Ethics members recognized the problem or followed up with the authority to ask why the forms weren't sent.

"It was missed," Schwartz said.

Schwartz added that the apparent confusion by county staff is leading the Board of Ethics to hold a broader discussion about which public authorities and public benefit corporations are required to file financial disclosure forms with Erie County.

"It's something we have never looked at, and we need to," he said. "We have not been clear and consistent."

He noted the Board of Ethics does not receive disclosure forms from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority or Erie County Medical Center.

Because the incorrect information was shared by county staff with the Water Authority last year, Schwartz said the Ethics Board is not requiring the authority to file disclosure reports for 2016.

At Thursday's Water Authority board meeting, however, authority commissioners decided that in the interests of transparency, they would file disclosure reports for both 2016 and 2017.

The deadline for filing the 2017 county disclosure forms was Tuesday, but the county agreed to extend the deadline by one month.

The Water Authority has a separate, internal ethics disclosure form employees are required to complete.

Though officials with the Water Authority and the county disagree on whether the authority may alter the county disclosure form to reflect conflicts of interests related solely to the Water Authority and not Erie County in general, the board decided to have its employees complete both sets of forms for both years.

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