A few weeks ago, Niagara Falls Republican City Chairman Robert Krause sent a letter to Niagara County District Attorney Michael Violante asking his office to investigate whether Niagara Falls City Councilmember Kristen Grandinetti intentionally or accidentally collected overpayments totaling $5,670 last year on her health insurance opt-out bonus from the city.
Krause said his letter was the result of a story published in the Niagara Falls Reporter on Dec. 20, 2011.
The background is this: City of Niagara Falls employees who are covered by a family health insurance plan at another job or through their spouse can receive a bonus payment of $9,713 for opting out of the city's health insurance coverage. A person who is single qualifies for a lower opt-out payment of $3,520.
Grandinetti is single, yet collected the higher family opt-out payment last year.
"It is either incompetence or malfeasance, and I hope it's incompetence," Krause said. "It would be bad for the city if it's more than that. I want to know which it was."
Grandinetti's overpayment came to light after the Reporter obtained an e-mail from Controller Maria Brown to Council Chairman Sam Fruscione, dated Dec. 2, 2011, with the subject heading, "Confidential: opt out information."
The e-mail contains a list of 49 city employees who are receiving opt-out payments for 2012. Grandinetti's name is on the list, alongside the amount she was to receive: $9,713.16.
Brown's e-mail begins: "I just notice Kristen's amount is wrong. It is at FAMILY. I guess everyone just assumed she is married. Her amount should be $3,276.04 Health and $252 Dental for a total of 3527.04 not $9,713.16."
Since the Reporter broke the story, the Dyster administration has rallied to Grandinetti's defense.
Corporation Counsel Craig Johnson told the Reporter that the form for opt-outs does not distinguish between single and married persons.
Brown verified this with the Buffalo News, saying the form "didn't include a box to check 'single' or 'family' coverage."
City Hall officials said the error was due to "an oversight in the city's Human Resources Department" when they mistakenly registered Grandinetti under the "family" category.
It was a "clerical error," Mayor Paul Dyster told television news.
It is, of course, surprising.
Would an educated, intelligent, respected school teacher and business person, a woman with close family ties in the city, a woman active in the civic life of the city even before her election as Council member, risk throwing away her career for the paltry sum of $5,670?
Yet many have been the comments on the Internet, at coffee shops, at city workplaces and public forums that suggest she must have known and hence scammed the system.
Grandinetti said she did not know.
"I was very surprised when I found out about it," Grandinetti told the Buffalo News. "I'm upset and concerned that people would think I would do something like this purposely."
To rush to judgment therefore on Grandinetti is what one expects only of low-caliber, ethically challenged persons.
Like say, for instance, what Dyster did to Clarence Bradley, who was arrested in City Hall last year on felony charges for, allegedly, knowingly accepting overpayments in unemployment benefits.
Bradley later pleaded guilty to a single count of petit larceny, a misdemeanor.
Had he been given the benefit of the doubt by the Dyster administration, I suspect he might not have been charged.
In fact, simple common sense suggests that Bradley was innocent, and that Dyster may have gone out of his way to frame him.
The Reporter learned that Bradley's immediate supervisor, head of the Department of Public Works Dave Kinney, was required to approve paperwork verifying Bradley was eligible to receive unemployment.
Several City Hall clerical employees also reviewed and approved Bradley's eligibility for unemployment benefits. One cannot get unemployment without approval from one's (former) employer.
Bradley, however, was not, like Grandinetti, a friend of Dyster's.
According to Bradley and others, certain people wanted a friend of someone close to Dyster to replace Bradley in his $52,402-per-year job as assistant department director of Clean Neighborhoods and the Zone Outreach Objective Mission, or ZOOM, team.
That may or may not be true. But when a discrepancy in Bradley's unemployment was brought to his attention in early 2011, Dyster, instead of contacting Bradley -- as he did for Grandinetti -- had the matter reported to the New York State Department of Labor.
The Labor Department review concluded that Bradley collected benefits he was not entitled to receive -- even though the city approved his benefits in the first place.
Readers know the story: Bradley was ill and rushed to the hospital. His request (like every request) for unemployment was based on the employer (the city) signing off that he qualified.
After being out of work for about a month, Bradley went back to work for two weeks, then took ill again. His supervisors knew he was back, yet, perhaps through a clerical error, neglected to cancel his unemployment insurance for those two weeks he came back.
In total, Bradley collected two unemployment checks for $450 that were later discovered to have coincided with the dates of the two weeks he had gone back to work between illnesses.
Bradley said he thought they were checks for his previously unemployed period.
Dyster used the two checks cashed by Bradley, amounting to $900, to hang this once-successful man.
There was, of course, the color of impropriety here, much like there is in the case of Grandinetti. After all, Bradley cashed two checks he was not supposed to receive.
But consider how differently the mayor reacted in each case.
Grandinetti is an ally of the mayor. She votes to support nearly every initiative the mayor presents to the Council. She is the sole vote on the Council the mayor can always depend on.
She is almost arguably not part of the checks and balances expected of the Council -- and for which the Council was established by city charter and New York state law -- but an extension of the mayor's office.
On the other hand, Bradley rubbed some, perhaps many, in Dyster circles the wrong way. One source said they were trying to get rid of him for a long time.
Be that as it may, when Dyster found out about Bradley's mistake, after Bradley returned to work in January 2011, Dyster did not call him to his office and let him explain, then vouch for him in the media, as he did for Grandinetti.
Instead, perhaps using the color of office, he demanded action. After the investigation was concluded and a State Bureau of Criminal Investigation detective came to City Hall on the morning of April 5, 2011, for the purpose of getting Bradley's address, in order to give him an appearance ticket, Dyster told the detective to wait and he would summon Bradley.
Then Dyster told City Administrator Donna Owens to call Bradley to her office, without letting Bradley know there was anything wrong. Dyster then called the media and told them to come to City Hall to witness an arrest.
After they arrived, Dyster had the media wait in his office, possibly so Bradley would not see them when he arrived.
According to Bradley's version of events, when he came into Owens' office, he met Craig Johnson, Donna Owens and the State Police detective.
The detective handed Bradley an appearance ticket.
Bradley was shocked at the fact that there was even an investigation.
He was further shocked, he said, when Johnson and Owens both said to the detective, "Aren't you going to handcuff him?"
The detective responded that they do not handcuff or arrest people for this offense. They give an appearance ticket.
But Owens and Johnson, seemingly acting under orders, pressed the detective to handcuff Bradley.
"Look, I do 15 of these a month, and we always give people an appearance ticket," Bradley quoted the detective as saying. "I'm not going to handcuff him. He doesn't have a criminal record."
Bradley's account, at least as far as appearance tickets are concerned, seems accurate. The Reporter made a statewide search of news reports on the Internet, and found that the New York State Police issue people charged with the same or similar unemployment offenses appearance tickets.
They don't arrest them.
Inside Owens' office, Dyster's staff seemed frantic. According to Bradley, they did not want him merely to leave with his appearance ticket and pressed the detective to at least step outside the office to escort Bradley out of City Hall.
Then, as Bradley left Owens' office with the detective, the mayor led the media out of his office to the lobby.
The cameramen filmed; the photographers snapped; and reporters took notes about an ambushed man, who one half-hour earlier was respected and gainfully employed, and who, up until that time, had not the slightest notion he had done anything wrong and that, in a matter of mere moments, his life would be forever altered.
Sure, the police detective who refused to handcuff Bradley spoiled it a little. How brilliant Dyster would have appeared -- a black man manacled and led to prison for the cameras, while Dyster proclaimed zero tolerance for crime.
Still, Dyster succeeded without handcuffs. He appeared on every television news station and newspaper alongside the "criminal" Bradley and the detective leaving Dyster's clean and never-corrupt City Hall.
"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," Dyster told the press, not giving Bradley the slightest presumption of innocence. "This type of conduct is not tolerated by this administration."
Bradley lost his job and whatever savings he had.
Dyster ruined an innocent man's life for $900.
There are some, who are opposed to the mayor, who are calling for a similar presumption of guilt for Grandinetti.
The Reporter will not play that game. We do not support the tarnishing of innocent persons.
I could suggest Grandinetti should have known she was receiving too much money. It is her job to review union contracts, including the health insurance opt-out agreement Dyster made with unions last year.
The Reporter could insinuate she was "hooked up" by someone in the city finance system and engaged in a conspiracy to game the system.
Or that she knew of the city's clerical error and simply played dumb.
With the kind of money involved in these opt-outs, employees might be expected to have prior knowledge about costs and benefits.
To be more explicit: Grandinetti is a teacher with the Niagara Falls School District, which also offers an opt-out plan. The School District pays less than the city.
Grandinetti elected to take the health insurance from the School District and the opt-out money from the city.
It is reasonable to expect that with two options available, she might have studied both carefully and become informed on the true amounts she had coming to her with either option.
I could submit to the reader that it is implausible that such a mistake could be made by a Councilmember, and not one city employee -- from Controller Brown, down to her payroll clerk and check writer -- noticed the error until the list was about to be turned over to the Reporter.
But I will not submit this in good faith.
I suspect it really was an innocent clerical error.
Like Clarence Bradley was innocent.
I therefore urge Dyster's opponents not to be brutal or savage.
If we descend to his level -- destroying people's lives in order to make personal gains -- then we become everything he is.
We become everything we oppose in him.
Grandinetti, like Bradley, deserves the presumption of innocence.
Krause had it right: Wait and see -- and with a hope that the person is innocent.
We must never take advantage of innocent people caught in the crosshairs of improbable justice.
No, we who oppose Dyster must never sink to the level of the brute.