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I-TEAM: Two-term Tonawanda Mayor investigated for corruption spanning 13 years

Claims of stolen taxpayer money & steering bids
Posted: 6:00 AM, Oct 09, 2020
Updated: 2020-10-10 21:35:31-04
RICK DAVIS

TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WKBW) — Awarding city contracts to friends and family members.
Spending city money on flights for his girlfriend.
Sending explicitly worded emails to his common council president.
Using city employees to punish those who question his actions.
And swearing at taxpayers when they complain at meetings.

These are just a few of the allegations facing City of Tonawanda Mayor Rick Davis.

The I-Team has been investigating these claims for three months after a city ethics committee quietly closed a surface-level investigation years ago. And now, we’ve learned, the Erie County District Attorney is getting involved, too.

7 Eyewitness News has learned the Erie County District Attorney is now looking into a complaint tied to our I-Team investigation.

Our I-Team was able to independently obtain dozens of documents that show just how Tonawanda's mayor has been operating since his days as a councilmember in the late 2010s.

A letter sent to the ethics committee asked it to look into eight issues, all involving Davis. We looked into some, as well.

Misuse of city funds

Davis’s use of city money to purchase plane tickets and pay baggage fees for his girlfriend on a trip to DC was a principal complaint sent to the ethics committee for review.
It happened in November of 2016.

Davis was on his way to Washington for a Mayor’s event at the White House, but wanted to bring his girlfriend along for a surprise proposal.

He purchased both tickets, and paid baggage fees, with the city credit card bringing the total charges to $567.38— an action our legal analyst Florina Altshiler said was illegal.

“Commingling funds is a major problem. It’s probably not something that should be occurring if you have access to government funds.”

Davis admits he used the money and made repeated attempts to justify his actions to our I-Team.

Madison: Do you think it was appropriate for you to use the city credit cards?
Davis: I reimbursed the city.
Madison: I'm asking if you think it was appropriate to use the card in the first place.
Davis: To buy both tickets at the same time, so we're sitting together on the same plane? Yeah.

Altshiler said this is not a justifiable action for a government employee.

“You can't borrow from the government money interest-free and just replace it,” she said. “If you have access to government assets the purpose of that is for you to use it for government business appropriately. If you're using it for non-government business, that's called stealing.”

Davis felt differently.

Madison: Why did you pay for a personal expense with taxpayer money, though?
Davis: It was reimbursed.Madison: From my understanding, there were 30 dollars that were not reimbursed. But I think the question is on the front end — why taxpayer money was used for a personal expense?
Davis: It was reimbursed.
Madison: That's not the question. I was asking why —
Davis: No that's the point though.
Madison: That's not the point.
Davis: Yeah it is.
Madison: I was asking why the credit card was used in the first place for a personal expense. Why not use your own credit card so you don't have to reimburse— essentially this is taking a loan from the taxpayers without asking, no?
Davis: It was reimbursed. Next question.

A follow-up email to the current city treasurer confirmed that the $30 in question was reimbursed to the city at a later date.

Davis did not only dismiss our inquirers about the spending of taxpayer money — he was aggressive towards Common Council President Jenna Koch during her preliminary investigation into the use of funds by the Mayor.

In a series of emails we received, he suggested the topic of his credit card spending was not worthy of discussion.

“So let me get this straight…this is all over $30?” Davis wrote to Koch, “Quite frankly, I don’t have time for political grandstanding.”

In another email, in that same exchange, he said, “I suggest if some people are bored and need help passing the extra time that they find themselves a good hobby to partake in…”

In a third email, Davis again took aim at Koch: “The City was reimbursed for all expenses period…end of statement…What I have a problem with is your attack on my character. You and you alone have created this difficult position. It is also disingenuous to everyone in city government that you seem to portrait (sic) yourself as the righteous gatekeeper of taxpayer dollars.”

Harbor House: city contracts to family memebers and friends

The Harbor House is a property owned by the City of Tonawanda at the Gateway Harbor. The bathrooms needed repairs and the City sent out a Request for Proposals (RFP) for labor in February of 2018.

The complaint to the ethics committee claims the City did not follow its own procurement policy to obtain three bids and the contractor did not obtain permits for the work. The complaint also wanted the committee to look into the reward for services to the contractor that was selected: Mayor Davis’s brother.

Davis said he removed himself from the project once he found out his brother was going to submit a bid.

“When my brother informed me he was bidding on the contract, the next day I brought up my building inspector and administrative assistant and told them I was no longer having anything to do with this project,” he said.

But, emails obtained by our I-Team show he was working to hurry along the selection of a contractor after he claims he excused himself, writing in March of 2018 to the council:

“I did not have a hand in anything dealing with the harbor how so I will not be of much help in that department…I do agree with Chuck (Davis’s executive assistant) though the council agrees on what spend, not what the money is for. I also know that the window for repairing the Harbor House is quickly closing before ht season starts and the Council should be prepared for any backlash because of that.”

Documents sent to us by the City of Tonawanda show that the City’s building inspector filled out the recommendation form to appear as if five bids were viably submitted for the project, when only two were valid: JD’s Handyman Services, owned by Mayor Davis’s brother, and Niagara Construction.

Three bids were submitted by JD’s Handyman Services — all dated February 28th.

Bid one was $59,590

Bid two was $38,090

Bid three was $30,490

A thirty-thousand dollar difference in the estimated scope of the project... all allegedly adjusted by Davis's brother in one day.
Questions to the mayor about a potential error in the dates on the paperwork were met with assurances he had nothing to do with the project and therefore could not answer.

Our I-Team also found handwritten adjustments made to the final bid submitted by Davis’s brother.
Sources informed us these adjustments were not made by the contractor, but by someone in the Mayor’s office.

That information was confirmed during our September 2nd interview with Davis where his assistant Chuck Gilbert was also present.

Madison: (To Gilbert) Is this your handwriting on this?
Gilbert: Yeah, this is a combination of what the numbers are when we added them up.

The notes weren’t just adding, some were a subtraction of numbers to lower the amount on one bid from $38,090 to $30,490.

After raising this point, Gilbert told us it was because it was decided some insulation work could be completed by the City after the bid was submitted, so he said he removed those costs on the February 28 bids.

Niagara Construction submitted its first bid March 6, 2018 for the project. It included quotes for insulation. No handwritten adjustments were made to remove these services from the bid.

The final estimate from Niagara Construction came in at $39,490 on March 14th, but the low bid was selected.

“The government would have to award the contract to the lowest bid,” said 7 Eyewitness News Legal Analyst Florina Altshiler. “This makes sure taxpayer money is saved and used effectively and it also makes sure it’s a fair and competitive process.”

The problem is, Althshiler said this bid should have never been submitted since it came from a family member of a government employee, this is illegal under New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics neopotism laws for government employees.

“If it’s his brother, and he’s a government employee, there shouldn’t be nepotism. Family members generally should not be contracting with government entities where another family member is an employee,” she said.

“The appearance to the public is that there ware some sort of communications or something underhanded. So, generally, family members don’t participate in those kinds of contracts because it just frankly doesn’t look good.”

We asked Davis point-blank whether he attempted to influence the bid process to favor his bother.

Madison: I guess I’ll just ask the question: did you have anything to do with this project? Was there any bid-rigging going on?
Davis: No.

In addition to the contract going to Davis's brother, the common council found proper permits were not secured to perform the work.
The letter to ethics says there were many areas of the City where permits weren't properly obtained, and in one instance the plumbing inspector fined a property for not acquiring the proper permit but Davis agreed to pay the fine to “make it go away.”

Retaliation and intimidation

The ethics committee learned of claims the Mayor attempted to retaliate against the plumbing inspector for fining the property and mentioned to an unnamed person he wanted to immediately fire the inspector. The Council claims in its letter the Mayor asked the body to remove the inspector from his position.

The committee looked into claims that Davis attempted to retaliate against individuals for questioning the ethicality of his actions by sending code enforcement vehicles to properties belonging to council members.

Our I-Team was able to independently corroborated these claims with at least two separate individuals who had been ticketed by code enforcement.

According to this letter, one council member contact the building inspector’s office and the building inspector, while still on the phone with the council member, asked the code enforcer why he was at the property and the enforcer was overheard saying, “Doing what you told me to do.”

Conduct unbecoming of an elected official

Our I-Team obtained the audio from another incident the ethics committee was asked to review involving allegations Davis swore at a constituent who has complaints.
This happened July 3, 2018 at a council meeting when a resident became upset about a tree scheduled to be placed adjacent to her property.

On the recording, someone can be heard saying, “Give me a fu**ing break over a fu**ing tree.” Several council members allegedly claim this was Davis.

We asked him about the recording.

Madison: A resident having an issue with a tree. Do you remember this?
Davis: *sigh*
Madison: Do you remember this at all?
Davis: I vaguely remember that yeah.
Madison: Do you remember a recording from that where you can be heard on tape saying give me a f—g break about the f—g tree.
Davis: Uh…no.

We played the recording for Davis.

Madison: Do you remember that part at all? Davis: No. I don't even know who that is.

Our I-Team also looked into a series of other conduct concerns regarding Davis that were not set forth in the letter to the ethics committee

One incident was in regards to a series of exchanges between Davis and Common Council President Jenna Koch.

Davis received an email from a resident on October 27, 2017.

It said: “As a concerned citizen I want to let you know I am upset I have not seen a music video by you and jenna kock I don’t have her email but do you have another one my wife and I enjoy them.” (sic)

"Here’s another resident who thinks you’re a c—k."

Davis forwarded it to Koch with a comment that said “Here’s another resident who thinks you’re a c—k.”

Madison: Why did you send her that email?
Davis: Umm…it… all friends. People seem to butcher her last name a lot. What you failed to show, and I think it's pretty disingenuous of you is her reply to me —
Madison: Oh, I have it here. She said, “(shocked face emoji) That’s not how that was spelled in the email! Please tell him the correct spelling of my name and that we keep people in suspense. Thanks for the heart attack as the email notification from you scared the heck out of me. I would rather me be called nasty names for the next few weeks, take the hear off everyone else for a while."
Madison: Do you stand by this. Would you send this again?
Davis: I probably wouldn't, but it was an email between friends.
Madison: On your city account? Calling another woman a c—k?
Davis: Ugh…really?

In a statement, Koch denied Davis’s claims that the email was well-received.
"I was never ‘okay’ with receiving that email... I informed the Mayor at the time that I did not appreciate that comment and notified the City Attorney as well."

Destruction of property

The next issue was tied to the last, regarding the curses allegedly used by Davis at the resident at that July 2018 meeting.
Council President Jenna Koch requested a copy of the meeting to be put on a disk.

In emails obtained by our I-Team, the City Clerk told Koch that Davis admitted he destroyed that disk.

Davis told us he wasn’t aware of what was on the disk he got rid of.

Davis: I didn't know where the disk came from. Honestly, I don't know where you're trying to reach at here.
Madison: So you don't remember what you said on this recording? Or anyone asking for a copy of it which is what was on that disk?
Davis: I don't know who said that, um, because that wasn't part of the minutes from the meeting.
Madison: So you do remember the meeting then?
Davis: I would've hoped that something like that would be in the minutes from the meeting.
Madison: Well you said you didn't remember the meeting, but then you said it wasn't in the minutes for the meeting.
Davis: Are you going to go on to your next question or is this going to be like a political… (gestures)
Madison: Sure. We can go on to the next question.

Conclusion and findings

The three-person ethics committee was made up of former Tonawanda Mayors Ron Pilozzi and Jack Gallagher and former city clerk Janice Bodie. It received the initial letter on August 14, 2018, and met eight times from August through October of that year. It interviewed 13 people, some on multiple occasions.

But, this was a committee that Davis tried to shut down with a veto before it was even created. An action he defended to our I-Team.

Madison: It’s my understanding you indicated to a number of people, when you heard about the formation of this ethics committee, you were going to try to veto it. I'm curious as to why.
Davis: No, it’s the formation of any committee. Because as you can see our charter states that it has to be established at the beginning of the year. And it wasn't the beginning of the year.

Common Council President Jenna Koch declined an on-camera interview for our story, but in a written response to Davis’s claims about formations of committees she said: The common council has the authority to create committees as necessary. The authority to create a committee at any point is defined in the charter.

Davis also denied the ethics committee was formed to look into his actions, specifically despite its eight complaints all tied directly to him.

Davis: The ethics committee was formed to look at the city as a whole.
Madison: And why would you want to veto something like that?
Davis: Because if you look in the charter it states that —
Madison: I understand the city charter. I guess I'm just curious, in your role as mayor, why you'd want to veto something that could bring transparency and make sure the city is functioning as it should.
Davis: I bring, and I applaud, and I welcome transparency. But the charter states that committees have to be established at the beginning of the year. That's when they're to be established. If you don't follow the charter then, why have a charter?

In a memo from the city attorney we were able to obtain, he notified the common council the mayor does not have the power to veto this committee's creation and so it was formed.

The three members decided to address the eight complaints “globally” instead of individually.

They cleared Davis of any official wrongdoing after the body says it “thoroughly examined each complaint” to develop its conclusion.

“Although there appears to be some irregularities and poor judgment exhibited by certain individuals, nothing that we investigated rises to the level of unethical behavior and/or violations of ethical conduct.”

We now wait to learn whether the District Attorney will agree with the committee's findings or decide he would like his office to further investigate the complaint.