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Denise Pease, GSA Regional Administrator, is at the center of Peace Bridge scandal

You may not know the name, “Denise Pease,” but you should. She’s an influential force in the downstate political scene and President Obama’s pick to head the New York regional office of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). In that position, Pease controls the federal government’s real estate portfolio throughout New York and beyond.

She’s also the figure behind GSA’s illicit environmental review for the Commercial Warehouse expansion project at the Peace Bridge and party to the killing of an inter-agency environmental justice investigation into the West Side childhood asthma rate.

Responding to a BR report last week that exposed potential wrongdoing on the part of Pease and another senior GSA official, Pease submitted a rebuttal claiming that BR “mistakenly portrayed” GSA and that the agency followed the law in completing its “thorough” environmental review of the Commercial Warehouse expansion project.

GSA Denise Pease

It may be Pease who is mistaken, however.

According to noted Buffalo environmental attorney Arthur Giacalone, the only thing thorough about GSA’s environmental review is the extent to which it violates federal law.

“The clever tricks and schemes to circumvent meaningful examination of the health implications of Peace Bridge truck traffic continue,” Giacalone said. “Buffalo’s Lower West Side is unquestionably a community with a high percentage of low-income and minority residents experiencing a disproportionate share of adverse environmental impacts as a result of its proximity to the Peace Bridge.”

Pease’s attempt to defend GSA’s actions doesn’t sit well with Kathy Mecca, president of the Columbus Park Neighborhood Association.

“Pease is grasping at straws while our children are gasping for air,” Mecca said. “She should be ashamed of herself and what she has done to our community — it’s criminal.”

MCThe Buffalo News last month reported that Pease urged GSA’s civil rights director and environmental justice officer, Madeline Caliendo, (pictured), to dismantle an August 2012 inter-agency environmental justice taskforce that had been investigating the high childhood asthma rate in Buffalo’s West Side. Meanwhile, Pease’s office was completing an environmental review of their own. That environmental review — a “Categorical Exclusion Checklist Document” — was released just three months later, in November 2012, and today is raising eyebrows across Buffalo.

BR was the first to bring you GSA’s contested Categorical Exclusion, which had been shielded from the public until this week despite Pease’s claims that it was “shared with local stakeholders when it was completed in 2012.” Now GSA is being asked to answer to the contents of that document.

“We ‘gave Pease a chance,’ and she blew it,” Mecca said. “She needs to cut the lip service and give us some real answers.”

While GSA’s Categorical Exclusion was under development in New York City, a separate effort was underfoot in Washington, DC, where 22 federal officials from six agencies had convened to explore solutions to the toxic diesel carcinogens that permeate West Side air.

In mid-August 2012, this environmental justice taskforce met with Dr. Jamson Lwebuga-Mukasa in Washington, where they learned the severity of the West Side’s air quality deficiencies, a byproduct of the Peace Bridge’s commercial truck traffic. Lwebuga-Mukasa is a respected Buffalo-area pulmonologist and researcher with extensive knowledge of the West Side asthma epidemic.

By late August 2012, word had reached GSA’s New York City office, and Pease wasn’t pleased. She immediately pressed Caliendo to pull the plug on the inter-agency environmental justice taskforce, which Caliendo had enthusiastically endorsed just days before.

“When two political leaders direct a taskforce of 22 expert federal officials to stop an effort to protect the health and welfare of children, you know that foul play is involved,” Mecca said. “What harm was that inter-agency taskforce doing by investigating the West Side asthma rate?”

According to her online profile, Caliendo “has focused her attention on making GSA’s Office of Civil Rights a world-class organization” since assuming office in 2000.

“She’s a class act, alright,” Mecca said. “Caliendo abused her power and trampled on the civil rights of all those living in this impoverished minority community. She’s unfit for public service. And the same goes for Pease.”

In the aftermath, GSA — and Pease especially — is on the defensive.

“GSA conducted an environmental review of the warehouse lease amendment in November 2012, and we ensured that we were carefully following the law,” Pease said in a statement to BR last week. “Our thorough analysis found that this limited action, the amendment of this lease, did not pose a threat to health and the environment.”

But Pease’s “thorough analysis” of GSA’s “limited act” doesn’t cut it according to some experts.

“Under NEPA, federal agencies have an obligation to consider ‘direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts,’” Giacalone said.

Julia Hudson

Pease and Caliendo aren’t the first senior GSA officials to find themselves in the hot seat of late. In September 2012, GSA’s National Capital Region chief, Julia Hudson, was reprimanded for planning a party to celebrate herself. And in May 2012, Jeffrey Neely of GSA’s Pacific Rim Region and at least three other officials lost their jobs after the agency hosted a lavish Las Vegas conference that cost taxpayers over $800,000.

“It amazes me that Denise Pease and Madeline Caliendo can get away with this,” Mecca said. “Heads rolled at GSA over an $800,000 conference, and yet we’re spending $110 million a year to treat asthma in the West Side while Pease and Caliendo manipulate federal environmental reviews that might have truly helped the asthmatic children in our community.”

Dan Tangherlini, the GSA’s top official, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Written by Matthew Ricchiazzi

@MattRicchiazzi on Twitter

View All Articles by Matthew Ricchiazzi
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