In the end, the free golf outings and all expense-paid fishing trip cost Guy A. Bax a felony record.
The former Niagara Falls official who steered business to contractor John J. Gross Jr. in return for gifts and favors was sentenced Friday to two years probation.
Bax, one of the targets of the FBI’s ongoing investigation into public corruption in the Falls, admitted his guilt in January as part of a plea deal with federal prosecutors. He was convicted of accepting a gratuity concerning a program receiving federal funds.
U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara could have sentenced Bax to prison - the sentencing range for his crime was eight-to-14 months - but instead opted for probation.
“I don’t think it will serve any real purpose," Arcara said of the prospect of jail time for Bax. “I just don’t think it serves as a deterrent here."
Arcara also made reference to the “relatively minimal" gifts that Bax received from Gross - they totaled a few thousand dollars - and his nearly four years of public humiliation during the investigation.
“It’s been a horror show,” Bax said of his conviction. “I’ve watched my wife cry for four years. I’ve sullied my father’s name.”
Bax, 66, a longtime city employee, served as Niagara Falls building commissioner until his retirement in 2011 and acknowledged Friday that he’s ashamed of what he did during his time as commissioner.
His conviction stems from his relationship with Gross, a plumbing and heating contractor and political insider. Gross is serving 33 months in prison because of fraud and tax evasion convictions.
In Bax’s plea agreement, the government detailed how Bax steered business, usually homeowners or companies seeking permits and approvals from the city, to Gross.
“Mr. Bax is not here solely because he associated with John Gross,” First Assistant U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy told Arcara. “If he was just friends with John Gross, he wouldn’t be here today.”
One of the instances cited in Bax’s plea agreement is a 2007 encounter between him and a property owner with plans to redevelop a commercial site in the Falls.
“You have to know the right people,” Bax told the owner.
He then suggested the property owner hire Gross because Gross “knows the right people and he knows the inspectors.”
Prosecutors said he provided the owner with a list of several contractors, but the owner later said he understood that hiring Gross was essential to getting the project completed.
In late 2007, the business person met with Bax, who was then the acting building commissioner, to discuss the business plan.
Bax told the person that other business people who were trying to get into the same industry failed to develop their projects because they were not using contractors who were “the right people,” according to the plea agreement.
“Guy Bax blurred the lines between his friendship with John Gross and his professional duties and responsibilities," Terrence M. Connors, Bax’s defense lawyer, told Arcara.
“The tragedy," Arcara said, “is that he’s here today."