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FBI seizes City Hall records, questions planning chief at his home

Unannounced and unexpected, FBI agents arrived at Buffalo City Hall Wednesday armed with a search warrant.

Eight hours later, they left with box upon box of seized information.

The court-authorized search, which took place just a day after voters went to the polls, focused on the city's Office of Strategic Planning and the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency in what appears to be an investigation into public corruption.

"We have not made any arrests," FBI spokeswoman Maureen Dempsey said Wednesday.

The FBI conducted the search with investigators from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the IRS but declined to comment on the probe.

Three sources said they also received information that Brendan R. Mehaffy, executive director of the Office of Strategic Planning, was interviewed by federal agents at his home early Wednesday.

The scene at City Hall Wednesday included a federal agent standing guard outside a neighborhood housing office and other agents wearing black gloves filing in and out of several third-floor offices.

Meanwhile, a gaggle of media waited nearby.

Inside of Room 315, where agents spent much their time, is the Division of Housing, which is under the Office of Strategic Planning.The office is filled with boxes of documents from housing projects, some finished, some not. The papers include bidding documents and financial reports.

At about 3:40 p.m., investigators left the office with two carts stacked with boxes covered by tarps.

Dempsey, when asked, confirmed that agents from the three federal agencies were at City Hall as part of a court-authorized search but declined to comment further.

One of the three sources who said Mehaffy was contacted by the FBI said she saw men who appeared to be investigators outside Mehaffy's house on Windsor Avenue at about 7:15 a.m. while she was walking in the neighborhood.

Dempsey declined to provide information about anyone who may have been interviewed.

"During the course of business, we talk to people about things we're interested in," she said.

Separately, a spokesman for the administration of Mayor Byron W. Brown released a statement: "Our understanding is that court-authorized activity has taken place at a BURA office. At this time we have no further information."

Brown is also chairman of the BURA board of directors.

It is not clear what the FBI was looking for Wednesday, but as recently as last June, agents working with FBI and the state Attorney General's Office were part of an investigation of the Community Action Organization of Western New York.

The group spends millions of state and federal dollars on anti-poverty programs.

As part of the investigation, the FBI and Attorney General's Office conducted two days of interviews with people familiar with the CAO's operations, according to a person who was questioned.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. said he would not comment on the City Hall search or its timing – the day after Election Day.

Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen said he was briefed by the Brown administration early Wednesday afternoon. He said he was told that law enforcement was in the building based on a court order, but “at this point there is no indication that BURA is the target.”

“There is no clarity of exactly who is the target, but this was about records and information,” Pridgen said.

[RELATED: This isn't the first controversy for the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency]

Several Common Council members were caught off-guard by the federal agents' search in City Hall.

Wednesday morning, Pridgen, Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana and Majority Leader David A. Rivera, who represents the Niagara district, said they did not have any information about the federal law enforcement activity, were not briefed on it and had no prior knowledge that it was going to take place.

"I only know what I saw in the news," Rivera said.

The search at City Hall began at about 7 a.m. and quickly focused on the Office of Strategic Planning.

The office is headed by Mehaffy, who is also vice chairman of the Urban Renewal Agency. Some of its programs are funded largely with federal money.

The Division of Housing, where the FBI agents were posted this morning, is headed by Yvonne McCray, who reports to Mehaffy. The housing office is among those receiving federal funds for such things as housing rehabilitation programs in the city.

The city's Office of Strategic Planning has been the focus of federal investigations in the past.

The office was once led by Timothy Wanamaker, who was sentenced in 2012 to three years’ probation for using a City Hall credit card to finance more than $27,000 in personal expenses, including travel. Wanamaker had to repay the money he stole to the federal agency it came from, the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Wanamaker was hired in 2003, when Anthony Masiello was mayor, and was kept in the post when Brown became mayor.

In the Brown years, the FBI launched an investigation into One Sunset, an upscale restaurant that closed a year after it opened and left $160,000 in unpaid government grants and loans. The One Sunset probe never led to criminal charges, but it did result in two unrelated but high-profile prosecutions. One involved Wanamaker, and the other former Common Council member Brian C. Davis, a former president of the Community Action Organization.

This is not the first time City Hall has been the subject of a federal search warrant or subpoena.

In 2017, state and federal agents investigating political operative G. Steven Pigeon issued a subpoena for documents related to firms that have done business with the city during the Brown administration. Pigeon, a former Erie County Democratic chairman, eventually pleaded guilty to two felonies – bribing a judge and making illegal campaign contributions.

Pigeon is awaiting sentencing and, according to two sources close to the case, is cooperating with law enforcement in a bid to reduce or even eliminate the jail time he could face. One of the sources said the longtime confidant to top Democrats across the state is answering questions about several ongoing investigations.

News staff reporters Deidre Williams, Susan Schulman, Matt Spina and Maki Becker contributed to this report.

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