The Public Record: Games People Play

by / Mar. 2, 2016 2am EST

Wild, unsubstantiated political dominoes theory:

Because if you don’t read stuff like this here, where will you read it?

Here’s a chain of events that political observers are chatting about, more or less in temporal narrative order:

 1.   Jack Quinn, the former congressman and current president of Erie Community College, will soon resign his post. He has to, after a state audit released in January excoriated ECC’s management for lax financial oversight and lavish administrative payroll. So he can save face, some time will be allowed to elapse before he tenders his resignation. Perhaps July, because…

 2.    By then, Congressman Brian Higgins will have filed a nominating petition for his upcoming re-election, to which he currently has no real opposition. Higgins will then decline the nomination in order to take over as president of ECC, leaving his committee on vacancies to choose another person to take Higgins’s place on the ballot. And his committee on vacancies will choose…

 3.   Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who has long been interested in going to Congress. By this mechanism he can box out other local pols—Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, for example, and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul—who harbor similar ambitions.

 4.   The vacancy in the county executive’s office is filled short-term by an appointment by the Erie County Legislature, and the appointee is state Senator Tim Kennedy, whose once icy relationship with Poloncarz and his allies in Democratic Party headquarters seems to have thawed considerably. The case for Kennedy is that, in a special election against, say, Republican Chris Jacobs, he has the fundraising network to be competitive. Kennedy is also a protege of Higgins, so the transaction makes sense. Jacobs has announced that he will run this fall for the Senate seat currently held by Marc Panepinto, but word is his heart is not in that race; his candidacy is the will of state and local GOP leaders, who want very much to take back that seat. If the county executive’s office opens up, Jacobs might change tracks.

 5.  This, of course, would leave Kennedy’s Senate seat open. Contenders for that vacancy include Assemblyman Mickey Kearns and Higgins aide Chris Fahey, who unsuccessfully sought the seat Kearns holds now, as well as Erie County Legislator Pat Burke.

Perhaps none of this will happen; perhaps some of it will but other paths will open up. One interesting, complicating rumor is this: Political strategist Steve Pigeon, who has been fairly quiet since his house was raided by state and federal investigators last year, will dispatch operatives to carry a separate nominating petition for Higgins, with a different committee on vacancies. If that petition succeeds, Higgins will have to decline that nomination as well, and the alternate committee on vacancies will be able to pick its own candidate to take his place, thus creating competition for Poloncarz.

This week in the Erie County District Attorney’s office:
Interim DA Mike Flaherty continues to try to burnish his case for keeping the job by seizing or creating headlines wherever he can. First, his office announced the indictment, after eight months, of two men in the death of 16-year-old Avery Gardner, who slammed her head into a low bridge while boating on Ellicott Creek. Flaherty’s former boss and close friend, Frank A. Sedita III, did not pursue charges at the time, though the driver of the boat—Timothy J. Wisniewski, 51, a man of no visible employment—was in possession of and had been consuming both alcohol and marijuana.

Sedita may have demurred because Gardner arguably contributed to her own death by standing up in the boat, and by joining Wisniewski and her boyfriend, 18-year-old Gregory G. Green—also indicted, though he was not driving—on the boat in the first place. Flaherty rejected that idea, telling reporters at a press conference, “She is innocent. She did nothing wrong. I would say she is akin to a passenger in a car hit by a drunk driver.”

To create and raise his profile as a prosecutor, Flaherty has been holding lots of press conferences; he needs cases that will generate publicity, such as this one, if he is to better his two Democratic opponents for the DA’s post, John Flynn (who has little experience but has the party’s endorsement) and Mark Sacha (who has tons of experience, a reputation for integrity, and no endorsements at all). It’s why he has promised to re-open the case of Barry Moss, killed in December 2013 by a hit-and-run driver—all evidence points to Evans waterfront bar owner Gabriele P. Ballowe—despite the fact that Flaherty was dispatched to ask the grand jury that voted to indict Ballowe to reverse their decision, which they did. Sedita was notoriously gun-shy of cases that weren’t guaranteed wins. In the Moss case, we are told, he may have worried about a prosecutor’s ability to prove Ballowe was driving her car when it struck the victim. 

Flaherty’s need for publicity is also why this week he unveiled a complaint form, hosted on the DA’s website, by which the public can register accusation of government malfeasance or corruption. Sounds good, right? But there’s a catch: You can’t be anonymous. You have to tell the DA—a creature of the region’s politics and patronage culture, as Sedita, Flaherty, and the aspirant Flynn exemplify—who you are. 

Who in a position to observe public corruption is going to risk that? And why shouldn’t the DA take anonymous complaints seriously? And if Flaherty is so desperate for publicity, why has his office stopped sending press releases to The Public, having inundated us for most of the month of January?