A Niagara Falls street vendor says the city is doing all it can to drive him out of business in order to benefit Frank Parlato, whose One Niagara building remains in arrears on its taxes.
Earl Robinson, whose family owned a Falls Street fish market prior to the city's decimation of that neighborhood 40 years ago under the guise of urban renewal, is a Vietnam veteran who found himself without a job after Moore Business Forms closed in 2001. Like many others here, he found other employment so long as he accepted a drastic pay cut.
To make ends meet, he began selling sunglasses, hats and other souvenirs from a stand in front of the former Occidental building during the tourist season. One afternoon last week, he met customers with a smile at a location well away from Parlato's operation, cheerfully dispensing directions and advice to tourists, as well as souvenirs.
"I never had a problem," Robinson said. "I get my permits and my tax number from the state; I do it the right way. I spent a lot of money in the off-season putting together my inventory, and now they're trying to bankrupt me."
Last year, after Parlato bought the building and filled in the adjacent Aqua Falls hole to park cars in violation of city ordinance, the trouble began, he said. Former Parlato associate Michael Gawel threatened Robinson both physically and with legal action, even though the souvenir stand was located on city property, Robinson said.
"They wanted me out and they got the city to get me out," he said. "There's not a doubt in my mind that the fix is in on this."
One problem might be that Robinson sells his merchandise for half of what Parlato charges.
"He's raping these people over there," Robinson said. "Last year, I saw people standing there crying when his parking lot attendants told them their cars had been towed and it would cost $150 to get them out. You think any of those people are going to come back to Niagara Falls?"
Parlato, who has been cited by the city for allowing unlicensed vendors to operate on his property in exchange for a piece of the action, has also had his building condemned on three occasions by the city's Inspections Department, only to have the condemnations mysteriously reversed. He's been arrested by state parks police on a city police warrant for failure to appear in court, and maintains ownership of the building despite making only sporadic payments on a delinquent tax bill of around $1 million.
Robinson said that, when he went to City Hall to get his vendors permit for this year, he was told he could no longer set up in front of Parlato's building. When he protested, he was told he would have to make arrangements with attorney Paul Grenga, who represents Parlato in his various civil and criminal cases.
Grenga previously served as the liaison between downtown developer "Smokin' Joe" Anderson and Mayor Vince Anello's City Hall, a relationship that became the focus of a federal anti-corruption task force investigation after it became known that Anello accepted under-the-table payments totaling $40,000 from Anderson while serving on the City Council and after his election in 2003.
"I want to know when Paul Grenga became the commissioner of vending permits," said Councilman Sam Fruscione. "These guys think they can use muscle like it's 1935 around here."
City Administrator Bill Bradberry and ex-acting city corporation counsel Damon DeCastro couldn't get their stories straight when asked by reporters about Robinson's plight. Like children caught doing something they shouldn't, each apparently said the first thing that popped into his head.
Bradberry said the problem was one of sidewalk congestion at that particular spot, something no government official in the entire history of Niagara Falls had ever noticed before.
"There have been some substantial, serious situations there with pedestrian flow," he said. Why these "substantial, serious situations" have only now come to the attention of the spectacularly corrupt regime now in place at City Hall went unanswered.
A visit to One Niagara shows the sidewalk now crowded with signage for Parlato's various tourist-trap businesses operating inside his building, as well as flagmen luring lost motorists into his parking lot.
"Bradberry doesn't have any idea what's going on in this city, that's why they hired him," Robinson said. "I don't think he's even been down here."
In any event, Damon DeCastro -- who formerly served in the made-up position of acting corporation counsel for the city until he resigned last month, despite keeping his City Hall office and still cashing city paychecks -- directly contradicted Bradberry by saying Robinson's sunglasses stand "raises homeland security concerns because of the area's proximity to Rainbow Bridge."
Yet the city is allowing vendors to set up shop in front of the Twist o' the Mist ice-cream stand across Niagara Street from Parlato's building and closer yet to the bridge.
"From where they said I could set up, I could throw a rock and hit the Rainbow Bridge," Robinson said. "I'd like to see anything they have in writing about homeland security that deals with souvenir stands."
Mayoral candidate and City Councilman Babe Rotella, along with Fruscione and Council Chairman Bob Anderson, have been in contact with Robinson and said the issue will be addressed at Monday's council meeting.
"Why can't this veteran, who served his country in a time of war, do what he's been doing in the past?" Rotella asked. "He doesn't deserve this kind of treatment, and we're going to get to the bottom of it."
Anderson cited the close relationship between DeCastro and Parlato's attorney Grenga as the cause of Robinson's problems.
"It's the old round robin. Parlato tells Grenga, go to DeCastro; DeCastro goes to the mayor; and the mayor tells Bradberry to get this guy out of there," he said. "Parlato's been getting a free pass on a lot of things here, and it's time we found out why."
The councilmen said they would demand to know who gave Bradberry the order to bar Robinson from the site. It's especially galling because the beneficiary is Parlato, who is involved in numerous legal battles with the city. But Rotella said the common denominator in many of the Anello administration's most disreputable dealings has been Paul Grenga.
"Every time something happens around here -- first with Smokin' Joe, then the courthouse deal, and now Parlato -- here's Paul Grenga popping up again," Rotella said. "Now he's got the city helping Parlato, and this guy's around $1 million behind in his taxes."
Anderson said it will be interesting to see how much Parlato, Grenga and others associated with One Niagara donate to Anello in his desperate bid for re-election.
"The problem with people giving this mayor money is that you never know whether it's on the books or off," he said. "But from what we've seen so far, you can buy things at City Hall pretty cheap."