About two dozen friends of embattled Mount Vernon Mayor Ernie Davis showed up at a fundraiser for Davis in Mount Vernon on Monday evening, expressing no interest in the federal investigation of the mayor's finances and curtly informing reporters gathered outside the event that the mayor is still the mayor, period.
Among the supporters who appeared for the event were Nichelle Johnson, corporation counsel for the city and Davis' chief of staff; James Gleason, Mount Vernon's fire commissioner and a longtime Davis supporter; and Reginald Lafayette, chairman of the Westchester County Democratic Party.
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Johnson and Gleason brushed past reporters, declining to answer questions, and Lafayette offered a few words of explanation regarding his presence.
"He's the mayor, so I'm here to support him," Lafayette said. "I'm here to support my mayor."
Davis himself arrived at the Ristorante Buona Sera on Gramatan Avenue in a black SUV, wearing a gray suit and red tie and looking relaxed and cheerful. He recently returned from a trip to Florida, which his office explained was an effort to support "Mount Vernon Day" in Pompano Beach, an event popular among former residents of the city who have moved to Florida.
"I'm great, thanks," Davis called out to a friend who greeted him outside the restaurant. "And the trip was great."
Notably absent among those entering the restaurant was Mount Vernon City Councilwoman Roberta Apuzzo, who traveled to Florida for the same event. Davis, 74, has conceded that property tax bills for a condominium he owns in Delray Beach, Fla., were sent to the Mount Vernon home of Apuzzo, suggesting that was done by "mistake." Apuzzo, 68, served as City Council president last year.
Davis has told Newsday that he hasn't decided whether he will run for re-election in three years, when he would be 77. Mount Vernon doesn't have term limits for elected officials.
Monday night's event was sponsored by a group called Friends of Mayor Ernie Davis, which has reeled in nearly $1 million for Davis in past election cycles. The group is planning several other fundraisers for the mayor throughout the year, including a golf outing in June.
Organizers of Monday's fundraiser -- who charged $250 per person to attend -- declined to say how much money was collected. Staff members at the restaurant said they had about 60 reservations for Monday night, but not all were for the fundraiser. A good many were for a birthday party on another floor, the staff said.
Asked if he knew the mayor was holding a fundraising party in the same building, a 60-ish man on his way into the birthday party laughed.
"All that money he's been stealing and he's holding a fundraiser?" the man quipped. "That's funny."
While Davis has filed regular campaign finance reports, state election officials said they have no records of the "Friends of Mayor Ernie Davis" fundraising group and it isn't clear who is behind it.
The embattled mayor is facing a federal probe into his personal finances, focusing on how he acquired more than $1 million worth of residential properties in four states and whether he properly reported rental income from the buildings to the Internal Revenue Service. Davis gets a salary of $143,000 a year while collecting a $66,557 annual state pension.
Davis insists he has done nothing wrong.
Davis has served 13 years as mayor. Originally elected in 1999, he lost the mayoralty to Clinton Young in 2007 in the wake of a scathing audit of the Mount Vernon's affordable-housing program. At the time, there were several federal investigations focused on City Hall. Davis was never formally accused of wrongdoing. He returned to City Hall in January 2012.
Since getting his job back, he has raised more than $172,000 in contributions from individuals and corporations and spent all but $56,708, according to documents filed with the New York State Board of Elections.
From that pool of money, Davis been doling out donations from $50 to $100 to nonprofit groups and the city's major churches, including the First Presbyterian and Trinity Episcopal Church, records show. In some cases, Davis has used his campaign contributions to pay for travel and hotel accommodations. None of those transactions is considered illegal.