By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette — BUFFALO — As he walked past a pair FBI agents in the hallway outside a courtroom in U.S. District Court in Buffalo on Tuesday, Guy Bax nodded at them and said, "Good morning."
Swept up in the federal law enforcement investigation of Falls plumbing contractor John Gross, Bax was about to become the second, and likely final, target of the probe to plead guilty to a crime.
"His cooperation began very early," said defense attorney Terrence Connors of his client's familiarity with the FBI. "Guy was interviewed several times in the beginning of the Gross investigation."
Connors said Bax continued to cooperate with the FBI probe of corruption in the Falls, even as he knew he would likely be charged in the case. Then, in a deal with federal prosecutors, Bax agreed to waive being indicted by a grand jury and pled guilty to a single count of accepting illegal gratuities from Gross during his time as the Falls' acting director of the Department of Inspections.
"His early cooperation made (the plea deal) his best opportunity for closure." Connors said. "He is full of remorse and feels bad for the city."
Bax admitted that between 2007 and January 2009, when federal agents raided Gross' Niagara Street business headquarters, he would routinely steer business to the three-time federal felon. Specifically, the one time inspections chief admitted that in promoting Gross' business he would create the perception that it would be in a developer's best interest "to use Gross and his company and that if (they did that), they would have an easier time obtaining approvals (for permits) they sought."
Bax's plea agreement with prosecutors outlines an incident in fall 2007, when he met with a developer who was looking to convert a piece of property for a new business venture in the Falls. Bax provided the the individual, referred to as "Business Person 1", with copies of the city's constriction codes and said, "You have to know the right people" to complete the development.
He told the developer he should hire Gross to work on the property conversion because Gross "knows the right people and he knows the (building) inspectors." Bax told the developer that others had tried to create similar projects here, but had failed because they were not using contractors who were "the right people."
The developer told FBI agents that, based of what Bax had told him, he hired Gross because he believed it was the only way to get his project completed. Gross was paid between $25,000 and $35,000 for the work.
In return for steering work to him, Gross remodeled a bathroom at Bax's home and snowplowed his driveway for free. Gross also took Bax on an expensive fishing trip and regularly included him in golf outings.
Though Bax admitted his guilt in accepting a gratuity in only one instance, law enforcement sources have told the Gazette the former inspections head routinely engaged in that conduct. Assistant United States Attorney J.P. Kennedy declined to say how many times Bax may have taken gifts from Gross, calling his plea "representative of Bax's behavior.
"It's not a huge sum," Kennedy said in describing the dollar value of Gross' gifts to Bax. "I find it somewhat remarkable in these corruption cases the relative cheapness that people can be purchased for."
Mayor Paul Dyster said Bax's guilty plea made him feel vindicated in his decision to fire Bax from his appointed position of head building inspector and suspend him from his civil service position with the city until his retirement.
"I hope that people understand that the city's Department of Code Enforcement operates much different than the old Inspections Department during the time that Guy Bax was there," Dyster said.
Bax’s plea agreement requires him to continue to cooperate with FBI agents investigating public corruption in the Falls.
"We've had a number of sessions (with the FBI) already," Connors said.
However sources have said it does not appear that anything Bax tells investigators will result in additional charges connected to the Gross probe.
Bax is expected to face a sentence of between 8 to 14 months of incarceration and a fine of between $2,000 and $20,000 dollars. He will be eligible for what is known as a "split sentence", which means he may serve his time in home confinement.