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LOCKPORT – Two of the three Democrats in the Niagara County Legislature are being blasted in automated phone calls accusing them of being responsible for a “sweetheart deal” for former County Election Commissioner Nancy L. Smith.

Minority Leader Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso and Jason A. Zona, both of Niagara Falls, angrily denied Tuesday that they had anything to do with the arrangement that allowed Smith to receive largely county-paid health insurance for life.

They accused the Republicans of racism because Smith’s successor is African-American, a charge Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport, dismissed as “ludicrous.”

The Buffalo News reported Sunday that Smith, who is retiring on her 55th birthday April 15, will have 75 percent of her health insurance premiums paid by the county for the rest of her life under the terms of a 1998 Legislature resolution.

To get that deal, Smith has to stay on the payroll until she turns 55. She was replaced last month as election commissioner by her longtime deputy, Lora A. Allen, but she was allowed to stay on as Allen’s deputy until her birthday.

Under the terms of the 1998 resolution, Smith would receive no county health benefits after retirement if she left before she turns 55, despite her 19 years of county service.

The phone calls to residents in the districts represented by Virtuoso and Zona don’t identify who paid for the calls, but they are clearly not from sources friendly to those incumbents.

A female voice asserts that the News article “proves” that Virtuoso and Zona “were lying” about the Smith deal.

The article did not mention either legislator.

“The Republicans and [State Sen.] George Maziarz are doing this. That’s his entire style of politics,” Virtuoso said.

Maziarz replied by phone from Albany: “It’s very clear what they did. They gave Nancy Smith a lifetime gift of taxpayers’ money.”

“Obviously, they’re going to play this game long-term,” Zona said. “Since I wasn’t at the Democratic committee meeting or the Legislature meeting [where Allen was chosen], it’s an out-and-out lie.”

“Lora Allen is immensely talented and qualified for the job and doesn’t need Nancy Smith’s help,” Updegrove said.

“If anybody is demeaning her, it’s the Democrats. Implying that race has anything to do with this is nothing more than an attempt to deflect attention from the real issue.”

He said the Republicans intend to bring up a resolution decrying Smith’s retirement benefits.

“I don’t believe we solely have the authority to prevent it, but we can certainly oppose it,” Updegrove said.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com