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Public needs to stay informed on contracts awarded to campaign donors

One contributor to Mayor Michael Villa’s 2015 campaign has already been awarded a city contract, another is on the agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting.

According to the NY State Board of Elections website, the Roemer, Wallens, Gold, and Mineaux LLP law firm of Albany, NY was a contributor to Villa’s campaign. The common council voted unanimously at it’s meeting on January 1 to award the firm a three year, $48,000 per year contract to handle the city’s labor relations and code enforcement cases.

Alderman Jim Martuscello said Friday that he has submitted a resolution to appear on Tuesday’s agenda which would award a $10,000 contract to the Wladis Law Firm of Syracuse for consulting services. The firm’s website lists Mark N. Wladis as its founder. According to NY State Board of Elections, Wladis was also a contributor to Villa’s campaign.

I believe it’s vitally important that the public, as well as all elected officials, keep track of campaign contributions in order to ensure that our tax money is going to the companies that can deliver the best service at the best price. There is a reason that NY State requires contributions to be disclosed and makes the information available to the public.

Now just because a company, or an official at a company, contributes to a campaign, doesn’t necessarily mean that they should not be considered. Campaign contributions are a fact of life, and I don’t fault either these two firms for contributing or Villa for accepting. However, if no other proposals or options are looked at, how do we know a proposal is competitive?

In the issue of Wladis Law Firm, both Controller Matt Agresta and Alderman Ed Russo told me that they were not aware of any other firms considered, and they were not aware that the founder was a contributor.

When I asked Martuscello if he knew Wladis was a contributor, I was surprised when he responded “it’s not important.”

While he also acknowledged that no other firm was considered, he defended his support for the resolution and said that after meeting personally with the Wladis Law Firm, he was convinced they were the right ones for the job. He asserted that he would not be influenced by anyone with money.

Besides the importance of considering at least one alternative in for any substantial contract, I believe it’s also important for elected officials to disclose any connections to companies being discussed. The city’s code of ethics, in chapter 23-3 section E states:

To the extent that he knows thereof, a member of the Common Council and any officer or employee of the City of Amsterdam, whether paid or unpaid, who participates in the discussion, or gives official opinion to the Common Council on any legislation before the Common Council, shall publicly disclose on the official record the nature and extent of any direct or indirect financial or other private interest he has in such legislation.

In regards to the hiring of Roemer, Wallens, Gold, and Mineaux LLP , Alderman Chad Majewski responded to me via email and wrote, “The law firm of Roemer, Wallens, Gold & Mineaux currently represents the county and at one time the City of Amsterdam. We were hoping to get an extension of the great services and negotiations they provided to the city at one time. I was unaware that they were a campaign contributor and that was not a factor in us agreeing with the mayor to enter into a contract with them.”

Martuscello also said he was unaware that RWGM LLP was a contributor. During the first council meeting of the year when the contract for RWGM LLP was voted on, I did not hear any disclosure of the contribution at any time during the meeting. So it looks to me that in the cases of both firms, the council was generally unaware of the connections to Villa’s campaign, and did not consider any alternatives.

I also reached out to Villa, as well as council members Rodney Wojnar and Paul Ochal for comment on Monday, but they have yet to respond.

I believe it is vitally important we keep our elected officials accountable for spending our tax money wisely. We should not be complacent or apologetic over what appears to me to be a fast track approval process to hire campaign donors. It may very well turn out that both these firms are the best for the job, and that would be fine by me. But how do we know that without a transparent process?

In order to maintain public trust, I believe both the mayor and common council need to do better. We need up-front and full disclosure of any financial connections to companies or people being considered for contracts during public discussions, and we need to see that some attempt was made to shop for competing proposals. The mayor and council need to keep each other accountable to do this, and we the public need to stay informed and keep them accountable as well.

About Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of AnthemWebsites.com LLC which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.

37 Responses to Public needs to stay informed on contracts awarded to campaign donors

  1. Having a law firm advise as to the qualifications of an accounting firm is like asking a dentist to evaluate a car mechanic… And $10k is outrageous. What is their hourly rate? What are THEIR qualifications in this regard? Why is this not being bid out? Lastly, where is this money coming from?

    This is plain crazy.

    • Thom Georgia says:

      And where are the public disclosures of conflicting interest(s), whether real or potential? Looks like it’s time to make a few phone calls to the AG’s public integrity office to initiate an ethics violation complaint.

      Pay-to-play-politics is alive and flourishing in the Villa administration, and it appears Mr. Martuscello and Mr. Majewski have turned a blind eye to it. Shameful.

      • Where were the public disclosures when contributors to Ann Thane’s campaign were hired by the city? Where was the outrage when CT Mall Associates and Dave’s Landscaping received contracts?

      • Tim Becker says:

        Do you know when they were awarded contracts, Jerry? If you can give me an approximate date, I’ll research it. I don’t recall them getting any contracts in the past two years, but look through my records.

    • diane hatzenbuhler says:

      Well here is the pot calling the kettle black: You Ms. Thane directed the city engineer to use only Jack McDonald on the engineering bids. You refused to allow him to go out to bid, when he clearly knew/said he could save money doing so!!!

  2. It’s not like Mike Villa is giving out keys to the city to everyone that helped his campaign. The selection of vendors is made by the Common Council, not the Mayor.

    • Tim Becker says:

      I think there’s a big difference between giving out a commemorative plaque and a five figure contract, don’t you?

      The mayor negotiates contracts, the council approves them, and then the mayor signs them. That’s how it’s supposed to work. I mean, we had a judge clarify that concept for us two years ago, right?

      • Negative Tim. The judge ruled that the Mayor negotiates contracts, period. He did not rule on anything else. Vendors are selected by ordinance of the Common Council.

      • Tim Becker says:

        How does the council “select” a vendor before the mayor has negotiated a contract?

      • Tim Becker says:

        The contracts are approved by resolution, ordinances are something different. I’ve never seen a vendor approved by ordinance. I think you are mistaken on that term.

      • Yes, I did mean resolution but the vendor is selected before the contract is signed. The “resolution” authorizes the Mayor to sign a contract with the selected vendor.

      • Tim Becker says:

        Maybe I’m not sure what you mean exactly by “select”. I know the council awards public contracts that are put out to bid. Maybe that’s what you mean? But bids are not necessary in all circumstances. What I have observed over the years, is that the initial ideas as to which vendors to use have come from council members, the mayor, or department heads. At the end of the day, both the mayor and council have to be in agreement on a contract in order for it to move forward and both are responsible for it.

    • There is a huge difference between recognizing volunteers (that had worked so hard to make Amsterdam a better place) after losing an election and awarding lucrative jobs and contracts to campaign donors just a couple of weeks into the new job. The cavalier disregard of the established budget, bidding process and code of ethics is scandalous. The lack of due diligence is ridiculous. Where is your outrage? The citizens of this city should be protesting en masse.

  3. Tim, your argument is based on a legal interpretation of conflict of interest. It is very narrowly defined as INTEREST[1]
    A direct or indirect pecuniary or material benefit accruing to a municipal officer or employee as the result of a contract with the municipality which such officer or employee serves. For the purposes of this chapter, a municipal officer or employee shall be deemed to have an interest in the contract of:
    A. His spouse, minor children and dependents, except a contract of employment with the municipality which such officer or employee serves.
    B. A firm, partnership or association of which such officer or employee is a member or employee.
    C. A corporation of which such officer or employee is an officer, director or employee.
    D. A corporation, any stock of which is owned or controlled directly or indirectly by such officer or employee.

    • Tim Becker says:

      First, just to be completely clear, my argument is only that elected officials *should* disclose their interest in a company during discussions and find competitive proposals. I quoted the ethics code to back up that argument.

      That being said, I don’t see how the section you quoted narrows the definition of “interest”. I think it makes it plain in the first sentence that “interest” is a direct or indirect pecuniary (ie money) or material benefit accruing to a municipal officer. I don’t see how a campaign contribution wouldn’t fit that description. The points A-D further define “interest” as such things as owning stock in the company or being on the company’s board of directors and things like that. Those are also “interest”. But if those points by themselves defined “interest” then it would be in conflict with the first sentence.

      • The definition of interest is qualified by the following statement that precedes the examples. “For the purposes of this chapter, a municipal officer or employee shall be deemed to have an interest in the contract of:…” None of it describes campaign contributions.

      • Tim Becker says:

        So you are saying the first sentence is not relevant? Because that pretty much covers any type of exchange of money or material. The rest of the points talk about other forms of interest other than exchange of money. If only points A-D describe “interest” as you are arguing, then hypothetically, a company handing an elected official cash would not qualify as an ethics violation.

    • Tim, that is exactly what I am saying, there is no violation. This appears to be an unsubstantiated witch hunt. You are holding Mayor Villa to a higher standard than is prescribed by law. Just two weeks into his Mayoral service and you have gone above and beyond to vilify him (no pun intended). If you had applied this standard to our previous Mayor, I would understand.

      • Tim Becker says:

        How on earth can you use the word “unsubstantiated” when I’ve provided clear and obvious proof of what is going on. Whether there has been a violation or not is not for me to decide, there is no “witch hunt” here. If pointing out the plain facts makes you think I am trying to “vilify” anyone, that is your take, not mine. The practice is wrong in my opinion and both the mayor and council need to see that it stops. I’ve suggested clear steps to solve the problem. So far, you and Diane have not been able to defend these actions, only point out what Thane did years ago. And neither of you have provided even one instance so far where this exact same scenario happened. So instead of trying to put me down for pointing out some very plain and obvious facts, why not urge the mayor and council to do a better job? That would be constructive and the city would be better off for it.

      • Tim, I that provided the facts. There is NO conflict of interest according to the law, whether you like it or not. I also pointed out similar situations with the former Mayor which you chose to ignore. Dave’s Landscaping was hired by the city for many jobs after contributing to the Thane campaign, including the landscaping and planting of trees on Grove Street in the parking lot next to my house. I include the example to show your bias, not that the practice is in any way illegal.

      • Tim Becker says:

        Jerry, c’mon you provided no facts, except throwing out the name of one company, and you presented an opinion on the interpretation of the ethics code which I believe I successfully refuted.

        So I’d like to hear you say it Jerry – you are perfectly OK with what happened here? You have no problem with campaign donors receiving contracts with no competing proposals or bids considered and no disclosure? I just would like to know where you yourself stand on that. I believe it’s wrong no matter who does it. Do you agree or not?

        The truth is something happened here which you would have slammed the previous mayor for, had you been able to prove it. And yet here you are defending Villa’s actions at all cost. And you say *I’m* biased? Really? You spent many years bashing every move the mayor made, even photoshopping her head onto a british monarch, remember that? And you want to call me biased? Puh-leaze, Jerry 🙂

        I don’t mind saying, I was not previously in the mindset of cross referencing contracts awarded with campaign donation records. Honestly it just didn’t occur to me to do it. If you want to fault me for that, then so be it. If it is true that Thane did the same thing in past years, then that was wrong, I won’t defend it. However, if it did happen, I wonder why it was not called out by the previous council, especially by Diane. According to Diane’s previous comment, both parties do it, so maybe both parties tend to look the other way? I don’t know, I’m just speculating. Either way it’s something I plan on checking going forward, regardless of the person or political party involved.

      • Rob Millan says:

        ‘…there is no violation.’ Sorry, Jerry, but I don’t think you or anyone else is in a position to unilaterally declare that. Also, citing Dave’s Landscaping as a campaign donor to Thane isn’t a very effective argument as he is also listed as a donor to Mr. Villa. From what can be gathered, he gives equally to everyone. That’s hardly bias.

  4. diane hatzenbuhler says:

    Tim Becker,
    I am going to presume that many of the long term vendors that have done business with the city over the past 50 years routinely contribute to campaigns across the board. RW has been used in the past for contract negotiations under the Duchessi and Joe Emmanuel administrations and is currently assisting the county. So instead of hiring a corp counsel that does it all, different services are being picked up by different entities. As GD explained in the past a personal services contract does not even have to have a cc approval below 5000.00.

    As I posted above when Ms Thane was mayor in the past 6 months she directed the city engineer to use only Jack McDonald Engineering, and I mean absolutely no disrespect to their firm. The engineer was upset because he knew that money could be saved by going out to bid on all the items. If the former mayor had paid as much attention during her 8 years to our finances as she is to Mr. Villa’s, the city might not be in the financial condition that it is. Considering that for the past two years I usually got “NO” answers to my questions concerning documents being finished and filed, clearly the new administration is looking at going outside the local area and bringing in an outside firm that has had no previous involvement in city finances, to hopefully get to the bottom of everything once and for all. It seems that after several firms and or consultants locally have been used the city has made little progress. Time to try something new!!

    • Tim Becker says:

      “I’m going to presume” – well what have I told you about that type of thing before Diane? 🙂 Even if that is true, does that mean it is right? I expected this type of argument and I don’t buy it. It’s wrong no matter who is doing it.

      Here are links to Ann Thane’s campaign contributions for all three of her runs…
      Ann Thane 2015
      http://goo.gl/SHSHlS

      Ann Thane 2011
      http://goo.gl/Hyk8C1

      Ann Thane 2007
      http://goo.gl/10VVak

      Go ahead and point out someone on any of these lists who is associated with the engineering firm you mentioned or any other city contract that was awarded without any competitive proposals or bids. I have no desire to defend anyone in this matter.

      Additionally, please tell me if you spoke directly to Rich Miller about the issue your described or did you hear it from someone else? If you heard it from someone else, who was it? When was the resolution passed that authorized McDonald Engineering?

      • McDonald Engineering was selected for the storm sewer work because of their long term experience with the project (which included assistance writing our grants and negotiating responses to the DEC) and unique understanding of this particular infrastructure. Other engineering firms were used for other projects. It’s a matter of record.

        It is also a matter of record that I repeatedly requested professional assistance for the Department of Finance for the balance of my term in office. Get your facts straight, Diane.

  5. You know, it also hasn’t been explained how the legal needs of the city will be parceled out. Corp Counsel will preside at meetings, but what other duties will be tended to? RW&M will evidently carry contract negotiations but are there anticipated savings already identified? I am wondering where exactly in these contracts this administration anticipates cost savings and how much. Lastly, who will prosecute code violations, as the Corp Counsel has a conflict of interest?

    We have yet to hear what the plan is to address these and other deep seated issues, i.e., blight and failing infrastructure, or how this administration will pay to remedy these problems.

    • Thom Georgia says:

      And continuing to beat the drum, if RWG&M is going to negotiate contracts, who is responsible for their administration? Oh that’s right…Pat Beck, the employee relations director & Villa/County GOP donor with absolutely zero experience in public sector labor-management administration.

      The state’s Public Employee Relations Board might as well just send a representative to permanently camp out in city hall.

    • diane hatzenbuhler says:

      Tim Becker, yes the city engineer told me directly what he was directed to do. I agreed not to discuss it since the mayor has a habit of firing good people for no reason.

      Secondly, the ALB firm is appointing someone who has dealt with codes issues to handle the city codes complaints.

      Tim, if this blog is going to be used by the former mayor to dissect every minute move the new mayor makes then maybe you need to explain that to the public. The mayor was new once herself with absolutely zero experience in governmental matters………and other than showing up to request money from the previous administration to cover mistakes that the Waterfront foundation made used the master plan as her guide. One of the first things she did was have the cc approve that payment of 35-40,000.00 to cover that Waterfront expense so the city would not be sued. This happened while she served on that foundation. That money was not budgeted for! Neither were the expenses to redecorate city hall in the first 6 months………that money was not in the budget!! And neither was the expense for the Rose Garden!! I have already previously Foiled much information from your 8 long years in office and I will start again!! You were unelected for all the dysfunction your administration created for 8 years including the cominglling of funds……..as stated by Mr. Wiersbicki repeatly telling you and GD it could not be done. To this day the books are still not in order.

      It is time for Ms. Thane to step back and let the new administration do their job without your constant interference. The days of doing things without council approval are over and will now be done by a team of people that were elected to clean house and straighten things out. Unfortunately some of it will take more time. You are not in charge and need to go find a job that will keep you busy and stop harrassing the new administration with all of your minions. You lost, move on, please for everyone’s sake!! If people wanted you in office, it would be you in there making the decisions, not Mayor Villa.

      • Tim Becker says:

        Pardon me Diane, but I don’t have “explain” anything. Given the enormous amount of time you have spent over the past eight years dissecting everything Ann Thane has done, and with a 1-3 election record so far yourself, you really have alot of nerve suggesting she should not express her opinion. Everything you said about her could be said about yourself. Ann is perfectly welcome to post here, as are you, so you may as well get used to it.

        That being said, your response to the issue is complete deflection, no acknowledgement that there is a current problem that needs to be addressed, just pointing fingers at what Thane did as you have always done. Perhaps you are the one who needs to move on 🙂

        But -thank you for citing your source for once. So shame on Thane for that. There, you happy? I still don’t see them as campaign donors though. Sounds like there was just a difference of opinion between mayor and engineer.

  6. diane hatzenbuhler says:

    CTMale was on the donation list and both they and McDonald Engineering ar extremely qualified in that they both know our city infrastructure.

    • Tim Becker says:

      I still have not been shown evidence of an analogous case to the current one – campaign donor being awarded contract with no competing proposals or bids.

  7. diane hatzenbuhler says:

    Law Firms are hired under personal services contracts and are not bid out. The money that is spent on these three items…..city council, codes and negotiations will come in around the same at GD’s salary. Plus no ins.

    Yes, I have responded and criticized former Mayor Thane and it was documented at the time…..thru numerous FOIL requests. But this has started within days of his administration and it is nonstop. How about letting the guy get acclimated before the attacks? It is just two weeks into his administration and she is on the attack? When she chose GD for counsel there were no bids……same difference.

    • Tim Becker says:

      I understand professional services are [edit:not] bid out, however the policy for non-bid procurements states “A good-faith effort shall be made to obtain the required number of proposals or quotations. If the purchaser is unable to obtain the required number of proposals or quotations, the purchaser shall document the attempt made at obtaining the proposals.”

      Diane, better to nip this problem in the bud at the beginning rather than let it go on. If you are going to look at this as an “attack” I supposed I can’t change your mind. But all I want is to see it stopped for the good of the city, nothing else. I want Villa to succeed because I want the city to succeed. I have been very careful to stick to the issues with my criticism rather than go after anyone’s character.

    • Appointing Bill Lorman Corporation Counsel is analogous to my appointing Gerry DeCusatis. Farming out the responsibilities of the Law Department in three directions will only increase cost.

    • Tim Becker says:

      You meant the mayor was attacking, not me, sorry. But be honest, how long did you wait after you lost to Ann in 2007? 🙂

  8. Diane, My staff met many times on the question of who to hire for the storm/sewer separation projects. The engineer was a member of the group that voted unanimously to take the direction we did.

    There is SO much you do not know about operations.

    I am proud of my record as Mayor. I am proud of the improvements we made to City Hall and its surroundings (not only cosmetic – energy-saving initiatives now save tens of thousands of dollars). I am proud of the millions of dollars in upgrades we made to the water, sewer and storm water distribution systems, including the water and wastewater plants. I am proud of our vastly improved waterfront and parks, new traffic patterns downtown, millions of dollars in grants for neighborhood revitalization, and partnerships we made to combat blight and spur economic development. I am proud of citizen engagement we inspired and all of the work we did to beautify this fine city. I am proud of the millions of dollars we now realize in new revenue to the budget because of the innovative actions we took to renegotiate contracts and improve operational efficiencies. I am proud that I saw deficiencies in the Department of Finance and requested professional hirings and help going back to 2009. My record of action is all documented in writing.

    Attention to these proposed contracts mentioned in Tim’s article is the fiduciary responsibility of the Council. They hold the purse strings. They MUST demand accountability. If they insist that a lawyer review the RFP for financial services (what does the Controller think about this responsibility being usurped?), why would you pay an outside firm? We pay a Corporation Counsel to provide legal advise. Why not have him review the documents? And again, why is this not being bid out? What are the perimeters of this agreement? What is the hourly rate and what exactly will they do for us? So far, I am seeing “Spend! Spend! Spend!” without any well articulated reasoning behind it.

    We live in a democracy. As a taxpaying citizen of this community, it is also MY responsibility to speak up when I am worried about what I see taking shape. We must, as residents, pay attention to the stewardship of our limited resources and weigh in, so that our chosen representatives respond to our needs.

    Given your long-time obsession with the functions of our municipal government, I am surprised that you are not storming city hall for answers. Really, its shocking that your criticism is so selective. Take off the blinders… there’s more to be concerned about than ever before.