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Same-sex marriage and the spousal politics of the Niagara Tourism Convention Corp.

April 28, 2009

By Frank Parlato Jr.

Very interesting.

The Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. (NTCC) had a deadline imposed -- this month -- by the Niagara Falls City Council -- for an accounting of its finances.

This in itself has nothing to do with same-sex marriage.

The NTCC president, John Percy -- unlike his love and marriage politics -- has always kept the NTCC finances a secret.

John Percy and RUssell Hurlburt

The NTCC gets $1.8 million in funding annually from Niagara Falls, allegedly to promote tourism and conventions here.

In response to the demand for disclosure, Percy provided a one-page financial statement.

In the past this might have been sufficient. But the Council, led by Councilman Sam Fruscione, passed a resolution that stated that either Percy present to the Council a "true and complete" copy of NTCC's budget or it would request an audit by the state comptroller.

Percy came back last week with a five-page outline. It showed expenditures of $3.1 million, but little detail about where the money goes.

Percy did disclose he spent $56,650 of taxpayer money on trips to India, London, Germany and elsewhere. But most facts surrounding the trips remain secret. Additional money may have been spent but categorized elsewhere, perhaps under advertising, press relations or entertainment.

Percy's base salary was also revealed at $129,359. But that's not counting bonuses, entertainment, mileage etc. His combined salary with perks might exceed $350,000.

Fruscione, not satisfied with the five-page outline, called for a line-by-line breakdown similar to what's included in the city budget.

Exceedingly oddly, therefore, City Controller Maria Brown volunteered to help get that breakdown and review all the figures Percy has or will have in the future.

She said she will gather it and explain it all to the Council.

Maria Brown will do the explaining? This is intriguing since it is a blatant conflict of interest.

Now it is fact that legally married couples share their earnings and usually file joint tax returns, since they are considered in legal union.

Maria Brown's husband, Patrick, is the NTCC's accountant. Both are CPAs, and must therefore understand the impropriety of a city controller checking her husband's books for an organization under suspicion of wastage of public money.

Anywhere else, Maria Brown would have to recuse herself. Instead, she expects to review and give financial opinions on an organization that her family household gets income from.

Sources formerly close to the NTCC say that an independent auditor should look at expense account receipts. Six-hundred-dollar-a-night hotel rooms and $1,000 dinners will likely turn up, they said.

"I've been hired to produce positive results for this destinationÉ," Percy has, in the past, protested. "I don't need to be criticized by every little receipt that is provided."

Audited copies of media invoices are also suggested to find out if Percy paid the $750,000 worth of TV, radio and other media, he claims, or, as is common practice, he bartered some or much of this.

Also perhaps worth looking into is whether Percy can support his claim that going to India and Europe was worth taxpayers' money?

Has there been any conversion studies? Is there is any data available from the NFTA, for example, to evaluate whether load factors for feeder flights to Buffalo have increased with international visitors? Are more people flying to Buffalo from India today than three years ago?

Percy is also known to hire friends. Are they working to promote tourism or Percy's political agenda?

One of Percy's hires, Jane Shroeder, readers will remember, was the aide who got fired by Louise Slaughter after she used the congresswoman's Pine Avenue office as covert campaign headquarters for Assemblywoman Francine Del Monte and for county treasurer candidate (and NTCC accountant) Pat Brown -- in violation of election law. What Shroeder does at the NTCC is a mystery.

Sandy Hays Meis, another NTCC employee, and Percy ally, allegedly received a lucrative contract from Percy to sell advertising. It is unknown if Meis brought in a single new paid advertisement in spite of the large dollars she was allegedly paid.

One source said emphatically that "these women are getting paid because of their support of Percy's politic agenda, including same-sex politics and not primarily for tourism promotion."

It is natural, of course, that Maria Brown would want to help her husband and their political team at the NTCC. This is not different than Percy trying to help his spouse. But Percy is not married.

WKBW-TV recently covered Gov. David Paterson's efforts to legalize same sex marriages in New York state and interviewed Orchard Park hairdresser Russell Hurlburt -- who we learn has a "partner" -- unnamed -- but shown in the story who "travels extensively."

Hurlburt's complaint is not against his partner who is, in fact, our own John Percy, but the state of New York, in not granting Hurlburt the rights of legally married spouses.

"If something were to happen to him," Hurlburt said, "an illness or a plane crash, God forbid, for me to go help him in a hospital in a foreign country or claim his body, God forbid, I would not be able to do that."

Hurlburt, however, is not entirely bereft of spousal benefits in Niagara Falls and the NTCC in particular.

Just as Maria Brown says she can "independently" review the NTCC books that her husband prepared, Percy seems able to find nothing wrong with getting his would-be spouse, Russell, exciting and glamorous jobs.

Percy boasted last year to the Council that the NTCC hosted the "Good Morning America" show when it came to Niagara Falls.

Hurlburt boasted on his Web site ( that "recently he and the staff provided on-location hair and makeup for all guests and cast of 'Good Morning, America' " during their visit to Niagara Falls.

One wonders why Percy, who lives in Hamburg -- though he represents Niagara Falls -- did not refer someone locally -- and not an Orchard Park hairdresser.

With Hurlburt, it may not be a clear conflict of interest, since they are not legally married. They can't. So far, only Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts and Iowa have legalized same-sex marriages. Gov. Paterson is trying to make New York number five.

If it becomes law, Hurlburt, who says he has never been one to think about a big wedding, will be planning one with Percy. "To be able to take that stand," Hurlburt said, "and claim my civil rights as a human being, a U.S. citizen who is equal to anyone else in this country, is worth celebrating."

Gov. Paterson agrees.

Citing issues such as hospital visitations, health insurance coverage and inheritance that are connected with marriage, the governor said that same-sex marriage would afford people, like Percy and Hurlburt, between, he wasn't sure of the exact number, "1,250 and 1,300 civil protections."

If the law passes, it will permit any two individuals, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, to marry.

It will not be illegal, for example, for an under-employed, uninsured, heterosexual single mother, in her 30s, who sees, perhaps, little opportunity of marriage to a man, to choose to marry a female friend, also a mother, also heterosexual, who is employed with good spousal benefits.

Both could enjoy the 1,250 to 1,300 financial, medical and legal benefits of marriage. Marriage, in this case, would become not entirely dissimilar to the equivalent of a Social Security benefit.

Once same-sex marriage is legalized, it is possible there will be an argument made to extend the same rights to family members.

The legal argument that incest should be banned in marriage because it may cause deformity of progeny is obviated in same-sex marriages.

The state may not have any legally compelling reason to deny two biological sisters the right to marry -- to gain civil protections -- since two non-related women can marry.

More variations are possible.

Lesbians who bear children with sperm donors sometimes set up three-parent families that include a lesbian couple and the biological father.

Once married, a non-mother lesbian spouse who helps raise a child from birth, the lesbian mother, as well as the sperm-donor father -- might all be entitled to parental rights. Triple parenting may be the precursor of triple marriage.

Utah's polygamists offer the same moral argument as gays and lesbians who claim they want the freedom to live their lives the way they want to. And like Hurlburt -- protect their loved ones.

Some suggest state-sanctioned "polyamory" --Êany sexual relationship combination of three or more -- could be organized on the model of limited liability companies. People could register their personal relationships with the government and gain between 1,250 and 1,300 protections.

With the legalization of same-sex marriage, will marriage have its romantic, idealistic, religious, traditional familial veneer stripped away and be reduced to what it is in the eyes of the government -- a legal contract between the state and two and perhaps in time three or more people?

Or will traditional legal family arrangements cast equally alongside new family configurations increase the romantic appeal of marriage?

Perhaps gay tourists will flock to Niagara Falls to wed and prove Percy's political and personal interests dovetail nicely with his job. Niagara Falls was, after all, once the honeymoon capital of the world.

Maybe the polygamists will come next.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.