BUFFALO, N.Y. — An Erie County legislator is asking the County Board of Ethics to look into the security detail that County Executive Mark Poloncarz requested back in the spring, and if the recent use of sheriff’s deputies to protect Poloncarz at parades should be reimbursable to the county as a “campaign” expense.
“This is not in any way a political endeavor,” insisted Erie County Legislator Edwin A. Rath III (R-District 6). “This is an inquiry asking the ethics board to weigh in on what county officials can do with public resources.”
After a series of events in March, including the delivery of a package to his office, which at first was thought to be suspicious but turned out to contain papers from a family seeking help with a problem, and the discovery of a knife near the sidewalk outside his home where a “tree had been stabbed” according to a police report, Poloncarz asked for and received a security detail from the Erie County Sheriff's Office.
At the time, Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard described it as a “dignitary detail” available to any county elected official who felt the need for protection.
Rath insists he never had a problem with that.
“If he felt the need for protection he should have it,” Rath said. “But it turns out the county executive was using this county issued security details for campaign purposes."
Rath is talking about the presence of the detail, which includes two armed deputies and an unmarked SUV, at some parades this summer.
Shouldn’t they protect him at parades?
One might fully expect a county executive to participate in local parades and for his security detail to accompany him due to their nature of being open-air events accessible to anyone.
However, according to Rath, “You can't use county based employees (the deputies) to provide security for campaign activities, and that's clearly what the county executive was doing here.”
When asked to explain why he felt the county executive’s appearance at a parade where any number of other public officials also appeared was a "campaign event," Rath offered, “When you have people wearing ‘Poloncarz 2019’ T-shirts and carrying banners, that is a campaign activity.”
He further explained the distinction for Poloncarz was the presence of a publicly funded security team.
As such, Rath would also like the ethics board, if it agrees with him, to weigh in on whether the Poloncarz campaign should reimburse the county for any associated costs of the detail during those events.
“When other public officials, such as presidents or governors, have used county sheriffs or other municipal police officers, they have reimbursed the host community or the host county for those costs," Rath said.
Poloncarz no longer has 24-hour detail
Rath also found it interesting that one day after he sent a letter to the ethics board asking for its opinions on July 18, Poloncarz requested that his 24/7 security detail be "terminated" according to the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, which also confirmed the average daily cost of that detail to be $1,775, for a total of $213,000 while it was in effect.
“Why is it the day after I submitted this letter to the ethics board that his security detail was waived off?" Rath asked.
Poloncarz press secretary responds
2 On Your Side reached out to Poloncarz and his press secretary Peter Anderson for comment.
In an email, Anderson told us the county executive would decline an interview on the topic but also wrote that the security detail – while perhaps no longer in effect round the clock – will still accompany the county executive at certain public appearances, especially those where his plans to attend have been previously disclosed.
In a subsequent email, Anderson said Poloncarz doesn't view the parades as campaign events, nor does he think his campaign owes anything for the presence of his security detail.
As far as any connection between Rath's inquiry and the county executive scaling down his security detail, Anderson said there can be none inferred, because they were unaware of the inquiry before Poloncarz decided to do that.
"The Board did not share that information with us, which is their policy. Unsurprisingly, Rath felt comfortable breaching that policy for political purposes," Anderson wrote.
Anderson also claimed those whose actions brought about the security detail in the first place are still at large, without stating what those actions were.
"Legislator Rath again shows his willingness to put politics before the personal safety of the county executive, which is sad but not unexpected," Anderson said.
Rath expects the ethics board to address his inquiry at its next meeting in September.
“The ethics board needs to define what is political in these campaign endeavors and if there is money that is owed back to the taxpayers," Rath said.