BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The Democratic nominee for Buffalo mayor was accused of welfare fraud, failed to pay her taxes and was caught driving with a suspended license, according to public records obtained by the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team.
But India B. Walton, who shocked Buffalo’s political establishment by defeating four-term Mayor Byron W. Brown in last week’s Democratic primary, makes no apologies for her past legal issues, which have not been previously reported and which stretch back nearly two decades.
"Everything that I've been through has prepared me to lead, it's prepared me for these attacks on my character," Walton said in an interview with 7 Eyewitness News. "I own my identity."
Walton said she has been open about her rise from teenage mother to possibly becoming the first woman chief executive of New York's second-largest city. She said she's not running despite her background, but because of it.
"Because of that," she said, referring to her history. "Every challenge that I've faced has resulted in a remarkable increase in my capacity for compassion."
Walton, 39, achieved what political observers have called perhaps the greatest political upset in Buffalo history June 22 by defeating Brown in the Democratic mayoral primary, 52 percent to 45 percent. Brown has promised to run a spirited write-in campaign.
Walton said on election night that the mayor’s campaign “definitely could have done more damage to me,” and Brown and his supporters have since made references to what they called Walton’s “record.”
7 Eyewitness News discovered the following information not from Walton’s political adversaries or from the Brown campaign, but through its own search of court dockets in the days following her historic primary win.
Allegation of food stamp fraud
In 2003, when she went by her maiden name, India Suttles, the Erie County Department of Social Services brought a fraud case against her because of $410 in public assistance in the form of food stamps that she received in August 2002, according to documents filed in the Erie County Clerk’s Office.
The government claimed that Walton “received income and/or wages that were not budgeted against the needs of the household which caused over payments of assistance to Defendant.” Government inspectors determined that Walton should pay back $295 worth of food stamps and delivered a summons to her Buffalo apartment.
"In hindsight, I would have been more proactive about reporting my income in a more timely manner, but this is not something that is uncommon," Walton said. "I think most people who have received any type of government assistance knows that there are overpayments, there are underpayments, and you know, it was paid back."
It does not appear that Walton appeared in court or repaid the funds until a judgment was entered against her in 2004. The judgment was satisfied in 2006, county records show.
"We call it the 'poor tax,' right?" Walton said. "Late fees and fines that occur because of things that you are really unable to do because of your financial situation."
Unpaid taxes and judgment
Walton, a self-described democratic socialist, said she expects to raise property taxes between one-half percent to 1 percent if she occupies the mayor’s office on the second floor of City Hall.
When asked by 7 Eyewitness News’ Ed Drantch whether city residents can expect their taxes to go up, Walton said, “You can. By and large when we have conversations about tax rates, people are willing to pay a little more in taxes to be able to ensure that they get municipal services that they really want and need.”
But records show that Walton and her former husband have not always paid their income taxes.
In 2004, the names of Walton and her then-husband appeared on a tax warrant issued by the State Department of Taxation and Finance. The warrant was issued for a violation of Tax Law 22, which pertains to personal income taxes.
The warrant stated that in 2004, the Waltons owed $562 in back taxes. Combined with a late penalty and interest, they owed $749, the record showed. It took them five years to pay off the taxes and interest, another state tax document showed, and the judgment was deemed “satisfied” in 2009.
Walton said she was unsure where the tax issue originated and said it may have occurred because she jointly filed taxes with her then-husband, whose name appeared first on the tax warrant.
"I honestly don't have an answer, I just know that currently I don't owe any taxes," Walton said. "But again, this is what the working class people go through all the time."
A tax lawyer consulted by 7 Eyewitness News said a state tax warrant is the same as what the federal government calls a tax lien. Unlike an arrest warrant, it pertains to civil -- not criminal -- matters.
‘Are you taking me to jail?’
Walton has been critical of what she calls “over-policing” and has said she intends to re-allocate funds that have historically gone to the police department to other areas like mental health services.
One of her campaign issues is to create a traffic safety division. The division would enforce traffic safety laws and remove police from routine traffic enforcement, according to Walton’s campaign website.
But Walton had an interaction with police about six years ago that caused her to question whether she would be taken to jail, according to records filed in Buffalo City Court.
On a Thursday evening in June 2015, Walton was driving on Bailey Avenue in Buffalo when a police officer pulled her over.
Walton, who according to police records was driving a 2007 gray Mercedes-Benz, was allegedly driving on a suspended license. The reason for the license suspension, court records stated, was failure to answer a summons at least two months earlier in the Town of Orchard Park.
The summons in Orchard Park stemmed from an October 2014 incident where Walton was stopped on Abbott Road for driving with a suspended registration due to an insurance lapse, records show.
Walton said she "can slighty recall" the incident, which occurred during a traumatic time in her life.
"That is a period of time in my life where I was in an abusive marriage," Walton said. "I am a survivor of domestic violence. And if you've ever gone through a traumatic experience you know one thing leads to another, and when it rains it pours. It was a very difficult time, and I am proud that I was able to come out of it in one piece."
The Buffalo police officer charged Walton with five misdemeanors, including aggravated unlicensed operation, as well as six minor traffic infractions relating to the condition of the vehicle.
“Are you taking me to jail for being suspended?” Walton asked the officer, according to his supporting deposition.
Walton said she was not taken to jail, and a search performed for 7 Eyewitness News by the state Division of Administrative Services’ Criminal History Record Search Program turned up no results for a criminal history.
The search program does not include results on noncriminal offenses such as violations and infractions, nor does it display criminal histories for people “whose only conviction was a single misdemeanor more than ten years prior to the date of the request.”
"Ticketing is a revenue generator for the City of Buffalo," Walton said. "At that time they were allowed to make pretextual stops and I actually feel like I may have been a part of a quota."
According to a certificate of disposition filed in Buffalo City Court, Walton was sentenced in November 2015 only for a parking violation. It is common in New York State for Vehicle and Traffic Law charges to be pleaded down to parking violations.
Walton received a $30 fine and a $30 surcharge, which was due in December 2015. But she did not pay the fine on time, records showed, and another judgment was entered against her. She satisfied the $60 judgment in February 2016, according to the records. The Orchard Park misdemeanor was also pleaded down to a parking violation with a $100 fine and $25 surcharge, which was disposed of the day after the Buffalo incident occurred.
Walton said she is not a perfect politician, but instead a regular person -- like many of the people she is running to represent.
"This is my story, and no one can tell me anything about myself," she said. "I am an open book, and I'm proud of that and I would encourage people who have questions about me to reach out and have a conversation before they cast judgment."