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FBI agents have been busy with investigations in and around City Hall

More than a few federal investigations have orbited around Buffalo City Hall in recent years.

The FBI, collectively tight-lipped, has not explained its post-Election Day raid Wednesday on the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, which also drew in agents from the IRS and inspectors from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But that's not the first probe linked to Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown's administration known so far. Plus, there's been one developer's accusations of pay to play.

Community Action Organization

The News reported early this year that the FBI and the State Attorney General's Office are examining internal matters at the decades-old anti-poverty agency, which has a long association with Mayor Byron W. Brown's team.

The federal agents began their inquiry early this year, after a contingent of CAO board members tried to fire longtime director L. Nathan Hare but were ousted in a power play engineered largely by the CAO's lawyer, mayoral confidant Adam W. Perry.

Over the years, the Community Action Organization has dealt with the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency for HUD money to, among other things, run community centers in Buffalo and develop low-income housing, particularly St. Martin Village at 564 Dodge St., according to Jennifer Shank, one of the ousted board members.

Three people who have been interviewed by state and federal investigators say the agents have amassed boxes of records and remain intensely interested in the organization.

When The News asked Brown in March about his involvement in protecting Hare from termination and the resulting FBI probe, the mayor called it "fake news."

Hare, who remains the CAO's chief executive, did not respond to an email seeking comment about the search of the BURA office on Wednesday.

Grassroots

As they inquired about the CAO, FBI agents also asked about the political club that launched Brown's career, Grassroots, three sources confirmed for The News. Over the years, Grassroots activists have worked for the CAO, too, including Maurice L. Garner, a longtime associate of the mayor.

FBI agents in June 2017 seized materials from the Grassroots political club's offices at 339 Genesee St., and from two other locations, the Urban Chamber of Commerce at 1325 Main St. and Garner's home at 64 Meech St.

When reached this week, Garner pointed out that no one was ever arrested in connection with the matter. He doubted that the search of BURA on Wednesday had anything to do with him or Grassroots.

"I don't think I was that important," he said.

G. Steven Pigeon

The FBI's search of Grassroots locations sprung from its case against G. Steven Pigeon, who operated myriad political campaigns and dispensed money through his political action committees after party forces removed him as Erie County's Democratic Party chairman in 2002.

Pigeon, long allied with the mayor, pleaded guilty in late 2018 to bribing a judge and arranging an illegal campaign contribution for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Neither Pigeon or the judge, former State Supreme Court Justice John Michalek, has been sentenced.

Pigeon faces up to 16 months behind bars. But in a bid to reduce or even eliminate his jail time, Pigeon has been cooperating with federal and state authorities examining public corruption matters, The News reported in February.

Steven M. Casey

The same day they searched Pigeon's waterfront condominium, on May 28, 2015, state and federal agents searched the home of Steven M. Casey, who also was on the ground floor of the mayor's political career and served as his deputy mayor before eventually resigning to pursue business opportunities.

Like the search of Grassroots locations, no arrest has emanated from the search of Casey's home, in East Aurora. But the former top aide to the mayor is talking with the FBI, sources with knowledge of the situation told The News.

Casey's lawyer, Rodney O. Personius, said Thursday that "Steve Casey played no role whatsoever in what took place at City Hall yesterday.”

NRP lawsuit

Pay-to-play allegations against the mayor flowed from a Cleveland developer in its lawsuit, not the FBI. But an appeals court, while agreeing the lawsuit was rightly dismissed on legal glitches, said in March that there was something to the accusations.

NRP Properties of Cleveland said Brown scuttled a $12 million project to build affordable housing on the East Side because it refused to hire one of the mayor's political allies, the Rev. Richard A. Stenhouse.

While Brown said he ditched the project because of a difference in policy issues, an NRP lawyer later said in court papers that Casey admitted the mayor dropped the project because of politics, not policy. In a 2016 affidavit, Casey said Brown pushed hard for Stenhouse to be hired, but stopped short of linking the mayor or Stenhouse to a pay-to-play scheme.

The 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals highlighted legal flaws in the lawsuit as it agreed a lower court judge was right to dismiss the case.

Yet the appeals court said there was “substantial evidence” to support the claim of pressure to hire the mayor’s friend. The judges said it can be "reasonably inferred” the city would have moved forward with the developer had it sent work to the mayor’s ally.

Staff reporter Phil Fairbanks contributed to this story. 

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