The FBI’s investigation into public corruption in Niagara Falls is about to snare a former top city official accused of accepting gifts in return for political favors.
Guy A. Bax, a former Niagara Falls building commissioner, is expected to plead guilty today in federal court in Buffalo to criminal charges related to his friendship with contractor and convicted felon John J. Gross Jr.
Bax’s lawyer confirmed the plea deal and said his client will admit to accepting an “improper gratuity” from Gross while working at City Hall.
“He immediately cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and has accepted full responsibility for his misconduct,” said defense lawyer Terrence M. Connors of Buffalo.
Bax, 66, retired from his post as building commissioner in early 2011 after it was revealed that FBI agents were looking into his relationship with Gross.
The two men were so close, according to court records, that Bax often referred to Gross as his “godfather.”
Gross, a well-known Falls contractor and political insider, is currently serving 33 months in federal prison because of convictions on mail fraud and tax evasion 18 months ago.
The plumbing and heating contractor admitted rigging construction bids and making payoffs to purchasing agents at local businesses. He also admitted cheating the government out of $161,000 in tax revenue.
Mayor Paul A. Dyster, who put Bax on administrative leave in 2009, said he was not surprised to hear of the plea deal.
“Our action to swiftly straighten out the situation took us part of the way to recovery,” Dyster said Monday. “Hopefully, Mr. Bax’s plea takes us another step to recovery, both in a practical sense and the city’s image.”
The FBI has been investigating Bax for more than three years and, as recently as last October, interviewed city employees about his relationship with Gross.
Bax’s name first surfaced in 2009 when he was named in a search warrant application by the FBI.
“There is probable cause to believe that the Gross organization has corrupt relationships with members of the Niagara Falls Department of Building Inspections,” FBI Special Agent Robert J. Gross, no relation, said in the application. “The investigation indicates these individuals receive benefits in exchange for supporting the Gross organization.”
The search warrant request also included emails that Bax allegedly sent to Gross, including one in which he is quoted as calling the contractor his “godfather” and thanking him for taking him on a recent fishing trip.
“Dear John,” he allegedly said in the email, “Thank you for the best weekend and holiday and extended weekend I have had in a number of years.”
A few weeks later, Bax’s name popped up again when a Falls hotel owner went public with complaints about Bax’s alleged efforts to lobby him on behalf of a project involving Gross.
The hotel owner, who had expressed concerns about the project, said he felt intimidated by Bax. He also said the city official made it clear that his opposition to the project might hurt projects the hotel owner had pending before the city.
Shortly after the FBI search of City Hall, Dyster stripped Bax of his title of building commissioner and placed him on administrative leave.
Dyster, who was elected in 2007 on a pledge to clean up City Hall, said he welcomed the investigation and would do everything possible to cooperate with federal agents.
Three years later, he’s hoping Bax’s plea deal will mark an end to it all.
“I hope it brings some closure for the city,” he said Monday. “It’s been a long, drawn-out investigation, and I hope Mr. Bax taking a plea is going to be the beginning of putting this saga to an end.”
If Bax’s plea deal goes forward as expected today, he will be the first public official convicted in connection with Gross’ latest run-in with law enforcement. He will appear before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.
Gross also went to jail in 1997 after admitting that he paid monthly bribes to a county legislator for nearly a decade, stole scrap metal valued at nearly a half-million dollars from the Bethlehem Steel demolition site, paid off guards to look the other way and kept a double set of books.
He was later sentenced to three years and five months in federal prison. Gross also served time behind bars after a 1974 conviction for grand larceny and conspiracy.