LOCKPORT – Mayor Michael W. Tucker said last week that he encouraged city Youth and Recreation Director Melissa I. Junke to raise money for city youth programs, but said he didn’t know of her plans to try to use a golf tournament organized by her brother’s restaurant to do so at city expense.
However, Junke’s attorney, George V.C. Muscato, said Wednesday that Tucker actually attended the June 3 golf tournament, bought raffle tickets and won a prize basket.
Muscato also said that city officials were well aware of Junke’s plan to try to raise money through an $85-a-ticket tournament at the Lockport Town and Country Club, set up by Lock 34 Bar & Grille, a Lockport eatery owned by her brother, Brian Junke.
He said Tucker “gave her the [city] credit card knowing she was going to use it for the golf tournament.”
“I have to disagree with him on that,” Tucker said.
He also denied going to the golf course. “I was at Lock 34, where the baskets were. I’m sure I bought a raffle ticket. I don’t remember winning a basket,” the mayor said.
According to receipts obtained by The Buffalo News under the Freedom of Information Law, Junke ran up a tournament expense bill of $9,080 with a city credit card controlled by Tucker. More than half of the money was spent flying in six former pro football players, five of them from Florida, to attend the tournament.
“We would concede that they didn’t know exactly what was being put on the charge card,” Muscato said. “That’s not Melissa’s fault. That’s the mayor’s fault and the city treasurer’s fault.”
Tucker said, “I understand about the plane tickets. It was not a proper expense for a city credit card.”
Muscato said minutes of the May 6 Youth Board meeting show the golf plans were discussed there, and those attending included Alderman Patrick W. Schrader and Alderwoman Kathryn J. “Kitty” Fogle.
Last week, Schrader, D-4th Ward, cast the only vote against hiring Hamburg attorney Brian D. Doyle for $200 an hour to investigate the possible misuse of the city’s credit card. Schrader said at the Feb. 11 Council work session, “I think it’s a waste of time, money and effort, and it shouldn’t have been in the paper. The paper’s saying this young lady is guilty.”
Fogle, R-3rd Ward, voted for the Doyle hiring, recommended by Corporation Counsel John J. Ottaviano.
Fogle said Wednesday she didn’t remember that Youth Board meeting. Schrader, asked if he was there, replied, “Probably.”
City Treasurer Michael E. White said two weeks ago that no tournament proceeds ever were deposited with his office.
But Muscato said Wednesday that Junke has records that show four deposits totaling about $1,500 were made with donations related to the tournament during May and June.
“The golf tournament lost money, no question,” Muscato said. “But Melissa deposited receipts for donations.”
“I knew we received deposits,” Tucker said. White could not be reached for comment.
Muscato also said he has records that show White’s office approved payment of tournament printing expenses totaling $133, which were not paid with a credit card.
White said two weeks ago that a now-departed employee in his office questioned the credit card bills for the tournament – six months after the fact. He said the golf tournament credit card bills were paid from a reserve account used to hold fees paid by participants in youth programs.
“This young lady has been unduly portrayed as having done something the city was unaware of,” Muscato said of Junke. “Quite frankly, somebody in the city should have the responsibility of overseeing these fundraisers.”
Tucker said last week, “Over the years, the Council has never funded the department properly, not just this Council but past Councils. I always told [Junke] to go out and do fundraising.”
Wednesday, Tucker added, “She was good at it.” He said Junke raised $65,000 for youth programs over a three-year period.
The Youth and Recreation budget last year was $131,739, which was little changed from the previous two years. This year, the Council cut it to $83,531 by laying off one of the three employees and reducing the special events budget from $17,500 to $9,600.
Tucker said he knew of the golf tournament from seeing a poster advertising it, but he said he wasn’t aware the credit card he controlled was being used by Junke to finance it.
“In essence, that’s what he told me,” Doyle confirmed Wednesday. “He stated that there had been a long-standing practice [of fundraising for Youth and Recreation] and he encouraged some of it.”
Doyle said Tucker is one of nine people he has interviewed so far in his investigation. Some will be reinterviewed before he sits down with Junke, who currently is on medical leave and receiving worker’s compensation benefits after falling on an icy, untreated sidewalk outside her city office in Altro Park and injuring her back.
Doyle said he will talk to Junke “as soon as I have all the documentary information I can assimilate.”
He said his probe is limited to the golf tournament unless he finds a general “failure in procedure” when it comes to the city’s two credit cards, one controlled by Tucker and the other by White.
“If we need to put some new policies in place, that’s probably what we’re going to get out of this,” Tucker said.
The golf tournament issue was not touched upon in a stinging audit report by the State Comptroller’s Office in December, which said White’s office has failed to provide the Council with accurate financial information, leading the aldermen to believe that the city still had a small fund balance when, in fact, the city was $1.15 million in the hole as of the end of 2012.
Another state audit, focusing on internal financial controls in 2013, is about to begin.