Who Is Syaed Ali? And What Did He Do to Make Mayor Byron Brown So Angry?
by Geoff Kelly - posted 5:53 pm, January 9, 2009
At seven o’clock on the morning of November 7, Syaed Ali and his family were awakened by a team of Buffalo police officers bearing a search warrant. The warrant, signed by Buffalo City Court Judge Craig Hannah one week earlier, accused Ali of aggravated harassment and empowered police to search his home and seize any and all electronic equipment—computers, discs, cell phones, etc.—that might provide evidence of the charge. Police searched Ali’s home, carted away boxes of seized material, and took him downtown for questioning, without an arrest warrant, without reading him his rights, without allowing him to contact relatives or an attorney.
Two months later, Ali hasn’t been charged and he can’t get his possessions returned.
The person that Ali says he was accused of harassing: Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.
When Ali asked that morning if he was under arrest, Mike McCartney, an investigator with the New York State Attorney General’s office, told him that he was—for computer fraud. Later Buffalo Police Detective Anna Mydlarz told someone else in the house that he was under arrest for aggravated harassment.
Authorities later claimed he was never actually arrested, but Ali’s lawyer, Richard Grimm III of the firm of Magavern Magavern & Grimm, says Ali felt as if he was in custody and could not leave. “He certainly doesn’t feel as if it was voluntary,” Grimm said of Ali’s subsequent trip downtown for questioning. “He apparently asked, ‘Am I under arrest?’ and they said, ‘No.” And he asked, ‘Can I leave?’ and they said, ‘No.’ It certainly sounds like a custodial interrogation when they won’t let him go.”
Police gave Ali a receipt for 16 items that they had seized. Ali says he counted 42 items, including material not covered by the warrant: credit cards, bank statements, checks, business records—not just Ali’s but those of his brother and father—even personal effects, including deodorant. Buffalo police took Ali down to Buffalo branch office of the New York State Attorney General in the Main Place Tower, according to documents his lawyers filed in December. There he was questioned and accused of various crimes, including harassment. When that interrogation was over, he was taken to the local FBI office, where an agent asked him a few questions and then let him go. Ali was never read his rights. When he asked if he could talk to a lawyer, Ali says, he was told that if he spoke with a lawyer they’d charge him with a crime. He asked if he could talk to a relative, and he was told he could not. When he asked if he could leave, he was told that if he left they would arrest him and charge him with a crime.
Eventually, at about 2:30 that same afternoon, Ali was released from custody. He says he was told by authorities not to tell anyone about what had happened. He was told that if his family asked what had happened, to tell them it was a case of identity theft and they had the wrong guy. He says he was told that if he talked to a lawyer or the media, he’d be arrested and charged with aggravated harassment.
Two months later Ali still has not been charged with any crime and authorities still have all the property they seized from him and his family. He was told that his electronics remain in possession of Detective Mydlarz of the Buffalo Police Department and were being tested “off-site.”
Mydlarz did not return a call on the matter. Buffalo Police Department spokesman Mike DeGeorge said, “We would not comment on an ongoing investigation.” Asked if that meant there was an ongoing investigation, he said he would neither confirm nor deny that. When asked whether logic dictated that there must be an ongoing investigation if he was refusing to comment on it, DeGeorge said, “Listen again to my response” and repeated it. (Asked if he would comment if there was not an ongoing investigation, DeGeorge said, “I imagine our response would be the same.”)
Grimm says that his firm has been unable to find an affidavit on which the search warrant was based. Ordinarily, a judge needs some sort of sworn statement to justify issuing a warrant. If there is one, no one has been willing to provide it to Ali’s lawyers.
“From a criminal procedure standpoint, that’s critical, so we’re trying to figure that out,” Grimm said. “There’s clearly some peculiarity, something unusual about the way the search warrant was issued, and I haven’t figured out why or how or what it is exactly yet.”
Peter Cutler, the mayor’s communications director, declined to comment on the matter, saying it was a police issue. He would neither confirm nor deny that the mayor had made a complaint against Ali that led to the warrant signed by Hannah. But Ali has no doubt that’s what he’s been accused of. He just doesn’t know what he did to deserve the accusation.
The warrant itself is sloppily written, accusing Ali of “Aggravated harassment, in violation of Penal Law Section 240.31-1”—a section of the law that covers damage to premises used for religious purposes. For his part, Judge Hannah won’t say whether or not he signed the warrant, claiming he has no recollection of the event. He told AV he’d only look into his files to see if he’d signed the warrant if ordered by a court.
Grimm says his firm sent letters to authorities inquiring into the status of Ali’s possessions. He says the firm tried to contact Mydlarz, who he was told was in charge of the investigation. Grimm says neither Mydlarz nor any other representative of the Buffalo Police Department have returned those calls. He has asked for the name of a prosecuting attorney and received no response. Both the FBI and the New York State Attorney General’s office have told Ali’s lawyers that it is a city matter and they have no interest in the case, and that Ali’s possessions are in the custody of the Buffalo Police Department.
On December 10, Ali’s lawyers filed a notice of claim against the City of Buffalo seeking to recover his property. They’ve received no response to that filing, either.
“They came to my house,” Ali said. “They made frivolous claims that are just not true. They’re making the accusations that I was harassing the mayor, and I did no such things. They used the cops, they filed false reports with the New York State Attorney General’s office and the FBI. I fully intend on suing them.”
So what did Syaed Ali do to precipitate this trampling of his rights? Who is Syaed Ali that someone, allegedly the mayor, should want to raid his house and take his computers?
Ali is a frequent email correspondent with city officials; most recently he sent a spate of emails criticizing the Brown administration for approving the JW Pitts Properties proposal for a waterfront hotel in the Erie Basin Marina. In those emails he used words like “sham,” “fraudulent,” “corruption,” and “malfunction of judgment.” Harsh, but hardly threats of the sort that constitute harassment. Others who have been copied on Ali’s emails tell AV that nothing they’d read rose to the level of a threat or of harassment. Ali calls his emails “informational” in nature.
Ali has also been active in Democratic politics: In 2007 he formed a committee to run for Erie County Legislature against incumbent Betty Jean Grant; the challenge was self-funded and ineffective—Grant successfully challenged his petitions and Ali did not make it on the primary ballot. Last summer he was a member of the Buffalo branch of the movement to draft New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for president. A couple local pols told AV that Ali was considering a challenge to State Senator Antoine Thompson last fall, at the behest of the Len Lenihan/Sam Hoyt faction of the local Democratic Party. Ali, too, says he was considering running against Thompson, but insists it was his own decision, and that he’d never done any serious political work for the Hoyt/Lenihan faction.
In any case, Ali did not run against Thompson, who maintains at least a nominal alliance with Mayor Byron Brown. (The widening breach between Thompson and Brown is grist for another mill, on another day.) So again: What did Ali do last fall to earn the mayor’s enmity?
Those same pols and their operatives suggested to AV that Ali may have been behind an anonymous August email campaign suggesting that the mayor led a secret gay life. Or perhaps Ali had run another anonymous email campaign, under the name “Save Buffalo,” demanding that Brown and Deputy Mayor Steve Casey resign by August 19 or face revelations that would prompt a common uprising against the administration. That, of course, did not happen, nor did the allegations that Brown is a closeted gay amount to anything.
Ali denies any part in those emails. He says that he’s done nothing wrong. (So, for the record, does his mother, who described the search of the family’s house as “armed robbery.”) “These are very bad people,” said Ali, whose reluctance to compromise any future legal action by talking to AV was undone somewhat by the aggravation of what has happened to him. “If they can do it to me, they’ll do it to anybody.”
More on this story soon.