On Connections with Evan Dawson, Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks defended the practice of county government using Local Development Corporations, or LDCs, to handle projects. An LDC is a not-for-profit private company, often created by the government to manage government projects. Four people, including Brooks' husband Bob Wiesner, are charged in a recent investigation into LDCs. The allegations include bid rigging and abuse of taxpayer dollars.
"There are examples of good, examples of bad," Brooks said about LDCs. "But the reality is that we don't have the money that we used to have in government to do the things we need to do. We need to work with the private sector."
Brooks continued, "It's hard to explain it, so people don't necessarily understand it... But it's a new way of doing business, and if people want us to go back to the status quo, that's kind of what they're saying when they say, 'Should we just do away with these models?'"
Brooks said that without LDCs, "Most governments would just say, 'It's too expensive and we're not going to do it.'"
But the state Attorney General's office is concerned that LDCs become funnels of tax dollars to big donors and supporters of elected leaders. In Monroe County, a company called Navitech was created to handle a contract worth roughly $100 million. Brooks supported the contract for Navitech. In the indictment, the Attorney General's office alleged that Navitech was involved in inflated billing and false invoices, bilking taxpayers.
During a news conference in December, Brooks joined Dennis Vacco, a former Republican Attorney General hired by Monroe County to review local LDCs. Here's what Brooks said on that day about Navitech:
"We acknowledge that there was a problem with the Navitech management of these contracts, and we're going to fix it. So yeah, it bothered us enough so that we're going to take measures to fix that. We're going to cancel the contracts with Navitech. We're going to move these projects to a different place."
On November 6th, Vacco released a statement through the county, and said the following about Navitech:
"My review did find irregularities in Navitech's role in the management of both LDCs. As a result, County Executive Brooks has ordered sweeping changes to ensure the continuity of vital LDC operations while also protecting local taxpayers."
Wednesday on Connections, Brooks offered a different take on Navitech, declining to say that there were problems with the company. "These were not our problems," Brooks said, indicating that the county found nothing wrong. Brooks said that the county reviewed the same documents that troubled the Attorney General's office, and agreed that there could be a "perception" of irregularities, but wouldn't go further.
"That's going to be carried out in court," Brooks continued. "Those are things that are going to be the focus of a court investigation. And again, as County Executive, that happens in the Hall of Justice. That has nothing to do with me."
When pressed about the fact that Brooks signed off on the creation of Navitech, she allowed "it certainly has something to do with the county, and that's why we've been cooperating with the Attorney General's office."
When asked to clarify whether she thinks Navitech has done anything wrong -- as she indicated at the news conference with Vacco in December -- Brooks replied, "I'm not in a position to say that. I'm really not. I don't have access to all the evidence, so I really can't say that. It's an ongoing investigation."
Brooks also shifted her explanation for what Vacco was hired to do. In November, the county issued a news release saying that Vacco had been hired to perform a "rigorous, county-initiated review" of the LDCs. Brooks' statement from that news release included her saying, "I tapped former Attorney General Dennis Vacco to lead our internal review."
Since then, Democrats have complained that the county is spending more than $160,000 on this review, and they say it should have been led by the county legislature instead. Today on Connections, Brooks said, "It's not really a review that we did. Essentially, we brought Dennis Vacco in to Monroe County to help us respond to the mountains of information that was being requested by the Attorney General's office." She added that Vacco is helping the county defend itself, and again stressed it was not a review, despite previous statements.
The county executive also defended COMIDA, the county's industrial development agency, which has been criticized in recent weeks. The Democrat & Chronicle reported that COMIDA's board has not offered a single "No" vote against a project in the past year. COMIDA's chair explained that was because she vets projects before bringing them for a vote. However, that prevents the public from seeing how much of the review process is conducted.
Brooks said she does not find this to be a problem. "There are open meetings," Brooks said. "If somebody is very interested, they can come to any meeting and they can ask, how was this vetted?"