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Double standard of justice for Dyster

Niagara Falls Repoerter

January 17, 2012

From the publisher Frank Parlato Jr.

It was a very basic double standard.

Consider how vastly differently Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster handled two sets of similar circumstances involving two employees of the city.

Dyster said it was an "honest mistake," caused by a "clerical error," that permitted Council member Kristin M. Grandinetti to receive $5,670 more than she was entitled to receive last year.

It was the Niagara Falls Reporter that first reported in December that the freshman Council member was listed in City Hall records as having received a more than $9,000 bonus in 2011 for wrongly opting out of a family plan health insurance policy. Grandinetti is single and qualified only for a single-person, lower opt-out payment of $3,527.

Both the city and Grandinetti participated in the filing of documents that permitted her illegal overpayment.

Grandinetti, of course, is Dyster's neighbor. The mayor campaigned for her election in 2009. On the Council, she has a record of voting to support the mayor's initiatives, oftentimes against the majority, and voting to uphold the mayor's vetoes.

Last week, Grandinetti told Channel 2 News that she was unaware of the "mistake," and as soon as she found out that she was paid more than double the amount she was legally entitled to, she set up a plan to pay back the overpayment to the city.

Dyster told Channel 2 News that Grandinetti had no way of knowing she was being overpaid.

Corporate Counsel Craig H. Johnson -- an appointee of the mayor -- told theReporter, "This was clearly an error with the form. The form has been changed so such an error doesn't occur in the future."

Now contrast this defense of Grandinetti with the treatment received by former city employee Clarence Bradley.

Dyster said Bradley was a criminal after it was learned that, in late 2009, Bradley received $3,200 more than he was entitled to in unemployment benefits.

Both the city and Bradley participated in filing documents that permitted his illegal overpayment.

Bradley had worked for the city Department of Public Works since 2003, starting out as a part-time seasonal worker at the Hyde Park Golf Course and working his way up to coordinator.

By 2005, Bradley became the first black man to become a union steward in the city. In 2009, he was appointed assistant department director of Clean Neighborhoods and the Zone Outreach Objective Mission, or ZOOM, team. Bradley, however, was not close to the Dyster administration, and neither campaigned for Dyster, nor was he in a position to help Dyster in any substantial way. Bradley says he ran afoul of a certain Dyster ally who wanted to place someone else in his position.

Dyster later explained to the media that an investigation of Bradley began after a "routine internal review of payroll records" in January 2010.

It was discovered that Bradley had gotten several unemployment checks when he was on unpaid leave following an illness. Apparently, two of them coincided with one pay period when he collected a city paycheck.

It is easy to understand how Bradley made an "honest mistake," and had anybody asked him, they might have determined he was telling the truth.

However, when the discrepancy was brought to his attention, Dyster, instead of contacting the employee -- as he did in Grandinetti's case -- had the city contact a consultant, People's Systems, and have them report the matter to the state Department of Labor, and they determined Bradley had collected benefits he was not entitled to receive.

According to Bradley, who suffers from diabetes, he fell ill in the autumn of 2009 with a blood sugar count of 704, putting him nearly in a coma. He was rushed to Mount St. Mary's Hospital, where he stayed for several weeks.

While recuperating, he exhausted his sick and personal leave time and filed for unemployment. His immediate supervisor, DPW Chief Dave Kinney, approved it. There was a lag time between the time he applied for unemployment and the time he got his first check.

It later turned out -- unbeknownst to Bradley -- that he was not eligible for unemployment, because he was not unemployed. He was on unpaid leave.

It is not as if he was trying to scam anyone by secretly double dipping. He was not collecting a paycheck. He thought he was eligible. After all, the city signed a form saying that he was indeed eligible. The state, he presumed, normally verifies with the employer eligibility for unemployment.

It was a "clerical error."

While he purportedly got $3,200 more than he was technically entitled to, between October and December 2009, according to Bradley, there was only one paycheck that coincided with two unemployment checks during a single two-week period, for a total of about $600, when he came back to work between illnesses, and which was received later when he was in and out of the hospital.

He said he was not aware the checks coincided with the two weeks he worked. It was an "honest mistake," he said.

"I was in the hospital. I thought the city approved it, and if I got the check, it was approved," said Bradley.

Shortly after Bradley returned to work, unbeknownst to him, Dyster prompted the state Department of Labor investigation.

It was completed without once talking to Bradley.

When it was determined Bradley received unemployment checks he was not eligible to receive, Dyster -- using his authority as mayor -- pushed for prosecution. He even arranged for State Police to arrest Bradley at City Hall, in the office of City Administrator Donna Owens.

Then he called the media to witness the arrest.

On April 5, 2011, Owens asked Bradley to come to her office for a meeting, without saying what the meeting was about. Bradley, who was back at work and not, of course, collecting unemployment, had no idea he had done anything wrong.

Once inside her office, Bradley was surprised to see Dyster and a State Trooper.

"They wanted him to handcuff me, but he wouldn't," Bradley said of the trooper. "Then we walked out of the office, and there's Channel 2, Channel 4, the newspaper photographers, everything."

As Bradley was led away, Dyster held a press conference, bragging about how he was cleaning up city government.

The staged arrest was not necessary, of course. Bradley should have been issued an appearance ticket, and not on camera, which most similar alleged offenders are permitted to receive.

Recently, a lot of people have been drawing comparisons between how Dyster handled Bradley and Grandinetti.

They say Grandinetti looks more guilty than Bradley. After all, she is a Council member, who is supposed to understand the business workings of government. Her bonus opt-out checks were written separately from her biweekly paycheck. Her opt-out check was more than double the amount it should have been. She was supposed to get $135 every two weeks. Instead she got an extra $353. Grandinetti received and cashed 26 of these incorrect checks.

Fellow Council member and fellow school teacher Sam Fruscione receives a family opt-out payment. She might have consulted with him to double-check her amount.

The mistake was caught only after it was known that the Reporter was about to receive a full list from Controller Maria Brown's office of all city employees receiving the opt-out and how much each received. An acknowledgment of the mistake was made public only after the Reporter published the information.

Why didn't the mayor have her arrested like he had Bradley? Her life ruined over a mistake of $6,000. Just consider if Grandinetti were not a political ally.

Suppose Council Chairman Fruscione, a critic of Dyster, had made the same "innocent mistake." By the way, and this is for the record, I agree with Dyster on one thing: his defense of Grandinetti. I suspect it was an "honest mistake." Grandinetti probably assumed the people who approved and wrote her checks knew what they were doing. Just as Bradley did when he was ill and got unemployment checks after the city approved his unemployment.

I also happen to think Grandinetti is honest and that she would certainly not risk her career and future over a pittance or to scam the system.

This I also believe of Bradley, who had risen far in his work at the city, and achievement of which he was rightfully proud.

So why did Dyster work so hard to help Grandinetti and so hard to destroy Bradley?

Was it because Dyster saw the benefit in supporting his political ally and rushed to her defense? Did Dyster see the benefit of ruining Bradley to make a show of being "tough on crime" on camera, without any human concern for the possibility that the man he was destroying was innocent?

Grandinetti will most likely remain on the Council, and out of her salary and opt-out bonus of $3,527, she will repay the $5,670 she was overpaid.

Bradley will spend the next three years on probation and repay $3,200 in unemployment benefits, without the benefit of having his job. He pleaded guilty in September to a single count of petit larceny in a deal with the Niagara County District Attorney's office.

"We fired him when he pled guilty," Mayor Paul Dyster told the Gazette.

That is actually misleading, since Dyster in effect "fired" him after he had him arrested last April when he put Bradley on unpaid administrative leave.

"If we find improper behavior by city employees, we're going to use the tools we have available to us as a city government to clean things up," the self-righteous mayor said. "This type of conduct is not tolerated by this administration."

Of course, since Bradley pleaded guilty, some will claim, his case is different from Grandinetti's.

But consider: Bradley was on unpaid leave. Without his salary for almost a year, and facing an expensive trial, the innocent man pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge.

Innocent people who cannot afford a trial often plead to lesser crimes they did not commit.

This is the sin of America.

And this is a town where the politically favored are blessed and those who run afoul of Dyster are ruthlessly condemned.

A town where Dyster says he is above politics -- a town, he said, where he came to change politics as usual.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.