BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw has sought to build a reputation as an aggressive taxpayer watchdog during his eight years in office.
He has positioned himself as a political rival of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz with an in-your-face style that blends a Trump-style populism with his former career in TV news.
“They deserve a champion in the Rath Building,” Mychajliw told a group of union members when he was running for re-election in 2017. “They deserve a fighter in the Rath Building. Someone who’s gonna fight for their interests every…single…day.”
But there’s one problem with Mychajliw’s pledges: Erie County data shows that his work ethic hasn’t come close to matching his rhetoric.
After a source earlier this year said that Mychajliw was consistently out of the office, 7 Eyewitness News filed a Freedom of Information Law request for 12 months of attendance data for the county’s top elected officials.
Attendance can be tracked for two of those officials — Poloncarz and Mychajliw — since they work in the Rath County Office Building, which is equipped with a security system that requires employees to swipe their ID badges to unlock their office doors.
7 Eyewitness News sifted through 1,448 pages of swipe records for a one-year period, half which occurred before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Western New York, and half which occurred after the virus struck. The data reveals a sharp contrast in the two elected officials’ work habits.
From September 2019 through August 2020, Mychajliw swiped in to his office at least once on a total of 62 weekdays. He showed no swipes on 190 weekdays. Mychajliw swiped in on 7 weekend days or holidays.
During that same time frame, Poloncarz swiped in to his office at least once on a total of 213 weekdays. He showed no swipes on 40 weekdays. Poloncarz swiped in on 32 weekend days or holidays.
On average, Mychajliw showed up to his office 5 weekdays per month and he was not at the office 16 weekdays per month. Poloncarz showed up to his office an average of 18 weekdays per month and he was not at the office 3 weekdays per month.
A career government accounting official consulted by 7 Eyewitness News said Mychajliw’s attendance record was unusually light for the chief fiscal officer of Erie County government, which this year has a proposed budget of $1.47 billion. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and declined to comment further.
In the one-year period reviewed by 7 Eyewitness News, the only month in which Mychajliw spent more weekdays in the office at the Rath Building than he spent out of the office was June 2020. That was also the month of the Republican Party primary for New York’s 27th Congressional District. Mychajliw lost the primary after receiving the fewest votes of the three candidates.
7 Eyewitness News gave Mychajliw, who makes $80,000 per year, and Poloncarz, who makes $118,000 per year, chances to explain their attendance records at the Rath Building.
“I don’t mind working hard,” Poloncarz said. “I feel like the people get good value for the work that I put in based on the hours that I put in. You may not always agree with my decisions, but I hope people will always agree with the amount of effort that we put in to serve them. And when you’re in these positions, that’s what you should do.”
The Democratic county executive said he was not surprised when told of the spotty attendance record of Mychajliw, his Republican rival.
“It’s disappointing, but…it fits the narrative that we had seen during his terms in office, which [is] he’s just not here a lot,” Poloncarz said of Mychajliw.
Poloncarz served as county comptroller for six years. Since his election as county executive, he has been the subject of a barrage of criticism from Mychajliw. Recently, the comptroller released a series of caustic Twitter videos that showed Poloncarz leaving an ice rink and accused him of violating coronavirus restrictions.
Poloncarz, who denied that he was doing anything illegal at the ice rink, said the criticism was especially galling given the revelations about Mychajliw’s attendance record.
“If that’s his goal is to stalk me because he thinks he can criticize me, he’s doing the office wrong,” Poloncarz said. “The best way to do it is to come in and focus on the job. And I know from being county comptroller, there’s no way you can do this job coming in one or two days a week.”
7 Eyewitness News explained its findings to Mychajliw and made multiple requests in person, by phone and by email to interview the county comptroller. Lynne Dixon, a former county legislator who now works as an aide to Mychajliw, said “we will get back to you” but provided no response.
But soon after 7 Eyewitness News made the interview request, Mychajliw made a series of aggressive attempts to obtain card swipe data for himself and for members of Poloncarz’s administration, including county lawyers and health department officials who have been working on the public health crisis.
Mychajliw first made a request to the administration by email and was informed that he would need to submit a Freedom of Information Law request to obtain the data.
A day later, on Jan. 14, Mychajliw sent a subpoena to Dan Neaverth Jr., the county’s homeland security and emergency services coordinator, seeking swipe card data for himself and for 25 other county officials, many who work in Poloncarz’s administration.
Mychajliw’s subpoena warned that if Neaverth did not respond by Jan. 20, he could be cited for contempt and Mychajliw would seek a court order to compel the production of the documents.
7 Eyewitness News then informed Dixon that because it appeared that Mychajliw was trying to manipulate or distort 7 Eyewitness News’ findings rather than respond to them, publication of this story would be moved up.
On Jan. 15, 7 Eyewitness News asked Dixon a final time whether Mychajliw would be available for an interview earlier this week. Neither she nor Mychajliw responded.
Mychajliw did not respond to an interview request Thursday morning but posted a seven-minute video to his own YouTube page that did not directly address 7 Eyewitness News’ reporting and mostly focused on criticism of Poloncarz.
In the video, the comptroller said his secretary often opens his office door for him, which is why he said swipe card data sometimes did not appear on record.
“And a lot of times when our outer door is open, Linda, our front secretary...she has a buzzer that hits the door and electronically lets me in without having to use my ID,” Mychajliw said in the video.
Mychajliw also released videos of himself at the Rath Building from December 2020 and January 2021, but those videos did not correspond with any of the dates 7 Eyewitness News analyzed during that one-year period. 7 Eyewitness News analyzed card swipes from September 2019 through August 2020.