A combined task force led by New York State Parks Police arrested six men in connection with an organized criminal enterprise that operated out of a city-owned parking lot downtown. Four others were arrested.
The gang was involved in selling stolen Discovery Pass tickets to the Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds tours, using state park employees to actually steal the tickets. They were then sold at a city-owned parking lot on Rainbow Boulevard subleased by the administration of Mayor Paul Dyster to Debby Guido and Rick Whitney, whose Over the Falls Tours provided a steady customer base for the stolen tickets.
Repeated attempts to reach Dyster -- who spent much of last week taking credit for the FBI investigation into popular local contractor John Gross, and may have served as an informant in the case -- were unsuccessful. The mayor has repeatedly stated that his "scandal-free" administration is a major reason he should be returned to office by city voters in the upcoming election.
Guido and Whitney operated the parking lot last year when it was owned by a private developer. This year, the city obtained title and now owns the 275-by-140-foot parcel of land known as Parcel 4. It was the former site of the helium balloon ride and sits about 300 feet from the border of the state park.
After the property was deeded to the city, Guido and Whitney somehow were permitted by the Dyster administration to continue to operate the lot, paying the city a rent of about $20,000 per year. The lot generates around $300,000 in parking revenue -- not to mention hundreds of thousands in tours and other business, legal and otherwise.
The passes were purchased for as little as $5 each and were sold to unsuspecting tourists for $33, according to banners at the lot that were taken down after the police raid. Whitney, 48, is well known to the Niagara Falls tourism industry. He stands six-foot-five and weighs 250 pounds, and was previously arrested by Niagara Falls police for an assault on a 5-foot-tall 100-pound woman.
He is now charged with criminal possession of stolen property, aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle second degree, and possession of marijuana. According to witnesses, when parks police came to arrest Whitney last week, he fled the scene and was later subdued. Officers searched his car and found a quantity of marijuana. It is not known whether it was for personal use or if Whitney was selling marijuana from the city-owned lot.
Besides Whitney, the investigation into the theft of New York State Park Discovery Passes used at the Cave of the Winds Trip and the Maid of the Mist boat also led to the arrest of:
The theft of these passes is theft from the taxpayers of New York, since the cost and profit go to the upkeep of state parks, which have suffered in recent years from drastic budget cuts and layoffs.
Whitney, who operates the city parking lot effectively on behalf of the Dyster administration, is alleged to have bought the stolen passes from an employee of his, Rod Haslip, who bought them from an employee at the Cave of the Winds, Demetrius Barber, and from others within the park who apparently fronted for Whitney and Haslip.
While the various alleged thieves are blaming each other as to who was the mastermind, one thing certain is that the crime scene is the city-owned parking lot.
Whitney and Haslip allegedly tore out tickets to the Maid of the Mist boat ride and Cave of the Winds from the Discovery Passes, then handed the stolen tickets to unsuspecting tourists, who purchased bus tours at $65 per ticket on city-owned property.
Some have questioned why Dyster turns a blind eye to this illegal lot.
After all, Dyster prides himself on being on top of various law enforcement activities in this city and is aware of the stolen Discovery Pass scam, but has done nothing to date to shut the lot down or remove the miscreants.
This may be because the lot -- besides siphoning hundreds of thousands away from the Rainbow Ramp -- also competes with One Niagara, which Dyster has been trying to shut down for years.
In the sweetheart lease Dyster gave to Whitney and Guido, a provision mandates that the operators not violate any laws, or they face immediate cancellation of their lease.
Dyster is not expected to take action, even though he was quick to suspend Guy Bax and other inspectors who were not charged with any crimes after an investigation into City Hall records by the FBI.
On top of everything else, unlicensed tour operators picked up and dropped off tourists in the city parking lot.
Thomas J. Markovich, 57, of North Tonawanda; Michael P. Herb, 45, of Tonawanda; Lori L. Johnson, 45, of Niagara Falls, Ont.; and Jason R. Lizardo, 32, of Niagara Falls, were charged with violating the Niagara Falls City Ordinance against operating a tour without a tour guide license.
Guido, who rents an adjacent souvenir store, JD Gifts, permits Whitney to sell tours with stolen Discovery Passes in her store, after Whitney lures tourists to the city parking lot they operate.
Whitney's Over the Falls Tours has a checkered history. According to affidavits filed in a lawsuit before state Supreme Court Justice Frederick Marshall, former Over the Falls salesman Jodie Ghianni said Whitney's company falsely reported their sales to landlords and set up an elaborate system of cheating landlords out of their rightful commissions.
Whitney was arrested in July 2007 by Niagara Falls police for allegedly striking a 5-foot-tall woman, and was led away in handcuffs only a few feet away from the site of the Guido/Whitney parking lot.
Ever since Dyster and Tom DeSantis approved the management of the city-owned property by Whitney, he has been an embarrassment to the downtown tourist area.
Whitney doubles as both operator of the tours, with stolen tickets, and manager of the city-owned parking lot. The giant Whitney jumps, screams, cuts capers, gyrates, shrieks, contorts his body and yells at tourists to get them into the lot. It's an amazing sight. If a tourist does not park there, Whitney is not above offering a rude hand gesture or discouraging comment, replete with expletives.
It is not known why Dyster not only turns a blind eye to this activity, but is said to sanction it. Experts in the tourism field believe that the Guido/Dyster/Whitney lot siphons about $200,000 in parking revenue away from the taxpayers from cars that would otherwise park in the Rainbow Ramp, where the city would keep all the money.
A few weeks ago, City Controller Maria Brown lamented the fact that the city parking revenues were down substantially this year. Dyster's response was to hire Desmond and Associates to make a study.
No $200,000 study is needed to learn why the city parking revenue is down.
The Whitney Guido lot is taking business away, while stealing from the state park.
It remains to be seen if Dyster or the Council will take action on the lot, now that the arrests have been made.
Whitney refused to return multiple calls requesting an interview.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Aug. 2, 2011|