Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III raised more than $80,000 at a recent political fundraiser, and most of the money came from his staff members.
Eighty-five of his 90 assistant district attorneys and 14 of his 15 investigators donated a total $70,050, according to Sedita’s filing two weeks ago with the state Board of Elections. All serve at the pleasure of the district attorney.
Some of his staff feel they were unfairly taken advantage of by their boss and his top administrators, according to present and former assistant district attorneys. Others say they were not coerced.
The donations are legal, and former district attorneys also received donations from many on their staff. But what was unusual in Sedita’s recent fundraising event were the nearly unanimous donations from his staff, the size of the donations and the timing, just after his re-election last year when he ran unopposed.
Previous district attorneys accepted donations from younger assistant prosecutors, typically in the range of $50 or $100, and assistant prosecutors with more seniority would receive suggestions from their bureau chiefs to buy two tickets to a fundraiser, according to two former assistant prosecutors who served under District Attorney Frank Clark. One served under Sedita as well.
Sedita first ran for district attorney in 2008 and then again in November 2012, and during that time, most of the staff contributions to him ranged from $40 to $150, although some were higher. Sedita’s campaign chest after the 2008 election stood at about $18,000.
But after Sedita’s re-election, there was a change in the pattern of staff contributions, which ranged from $500 to $1,000, according to records from the State Board of Elections.
In April, assistant district attorneys, investigators and a handful of other staff members received a postcard from Friends of Frank Sedita, inviting them to “a brief meeting regarding the status of the office” for 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning at the Armory Tavern on Connecticut Street. When they gathered in a back room of the West Side tavern, the staff members were told by high-ranking supervisors Thomas Finnerty and James Bargnesi that they would be receiving invitations to attend a Sedita fundraiser in May at a downtown Buffalo restaurant and that the future of the district attorney’s office could be uncertain. Finnerty mentioned there were a few pay periods before the fundraiser and that staffers were told, depending on their salary level, that they should consider giving from $500 to $1,000. Sedita was not present at the meeting.
The top administrators also told the assistant district attorneys that there was stiff competition for their jobs and that highly qualified law school graduates were eager to find work.
The resumes of prospective job applicants were so impressive that some of those at the meeting would not have been hired if they were competing against these newest job applicants in today’s market, one current assistant prosecutor said.
Sedita’s top attorneys also explained that the staff should donate in order to dissuade possible future opponents for the office of district attorney.
One investigator, who asked that his name be withheld, said the April meeting was cordial and no one was forced into making a contribution.
“There was no pressure,” he said.
The assistant DA agreed: “You are not forced. They always say, ‘You don’t have to do it ...’ ”
The fundraiser was held May 13 at Tempo on Delaware Avenue.
Michael Flaherty, the first deputy district attorney, contributed the most: $1,250.
Other donors, according to Sedita’s filing with the Board of Elections, included several well-known local attorneys, law firms and companies, whose donations, when added to contributions from the DA’s staff, totaled $82,600. After deducting $8,000 for the cost of the event, Sedita’s committee cleared about $74,600.
And after a number of other expenses were deducted since the start of this year, including a $5,000 contribution Sedita made to the Erie County Democratic Committee, Sedita’s political campaign chest had a balance of $171,121.15.
Prior to the May fundraiser, Sedita’s balance had been $107,236.12, representing previous campaign contributions.
The current assistant district attorney told The Buffalo News that there is frustration among a number of prosecutors in the office who feel they were coerced into making donations to remain in Sedita’s good graces.
“When I got the postcard at home, I was surprised. He had just been re-elected, and we assumed he had been appointed a judge and was going to announce to us he was handing over the reins. Then we were told at the meeting that Frank Sedita needs to raise money, that it cost money to do the politicking and stay viable. He’s got to have a war chest to ward off potential opponents,” the assistant district attorney said, requesting anonymity because his job is an appointment by Sedita.
The News requested an interview with Sedita to discuss the fundraising. He refused and said he would only take written questions. The News sent him several questions, including: Did you ask your supervisors to organize the meeting in April? Did you have anything to do with organizing the May 13 fundraiser? Is it proper to be having a fundraiser so quickly after being re-elected? Are you running for judge?
Sedita did not respond directly to the questions but instead issued a statement that said in part:
“The most unpleasant aspect of holding elected office is political fundraising. However, given the fact that District Attorney is an elected office, political fundraising is necessary.
“I do not personally solicit donors for campaign contributions and leave it to others to do fundraising on my behalf. They are prohibited from engaging in any coercive or otherwise improper tactics. All fundraising done on my behalf has been completely legal, completely ethical and completely transparent ...
“Last month I was selected by Gov. Cuomo to serve on the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption.”
Former Assistant District Attorney Matthew A. Albert, who was fired by Sedita in an unrelated matter earlier this summer, said he contributed $1,000 after receiving what he believed was a subtle threat from his supervisor, Kristin A. St. Mary, a bureau chief team leader in felony crimes.
“I told her I had five weddings to go to and could I put off making my donation until the end of the summer, and she said to me, ‘Matt, you don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to remain employed here.’ I told numerous people about her comment after it was said because it was so explicit.”
“I paid $1,000. I looked at it as job insurance,” Albert said.
Albert was later fired after it was determined he had a continuing relationship with an SPCA investigator involved in the animal cruelty case against horse owner Beth Lynne Hoskins and after he denied that relationship.
Sedita, in his email, said of Albert: “Simply stated, he is a disgruntled, disgraced and dishonest ex-employee with an ax to grind.”
St. Mary, in an email, stated that Albert’s claims are false.
“I am offended that I even need to state that I completely deny Mr. Albert’s ridiculous accusations. That being said, I do, in fact, completely deny his claims,” St. Mary stated.
But the current assistant district attorney said Albert’s experience in being asked to contribute was not unusual.
“If you don’t have the money, they will ask you to ask your parents or pay it in installments,” the assistant prosecutor said. “Usually, your bureau chief will take you out to lunch or off county property and mention that Frank is running for re-election and contributions are needed.”
Other employees in the district attorney’s office either refused to comment or said very little about fundraising.
A former assistant district attorney who worked for many years at the DA’s office said other district attorneys have solicited political donations, though he could not recall being asked to donate just months after the district attorney had been re-elected or being told how much to donate.
“We never, ever were told we had to contribute, but the DA would solicit funds through others on his staff,” the former assistant prosecutor said.
A check of past campaign fundraising records from the state’s Board of Elections showed that Sedita’s immediate predecessor, Clark, received contributions from many of his assistant district attorneys.
One former official from the DA’s office said that, while the practice of obtaining donations from staffers occurred in the past, he could not recall assistant DAs and investigators being invited to a Sunday morning meeting or any other off-hours meetings to talk about donating.
A New York State Bar Association opinion of 1995 bears out that comment, stating that prosecutors should not engage or even give the appearance of engaging in political activities that would show bias or favoritism.
The opinion states:
“The public should be reassured that prosecuting attorneys do not, and of equal importance, do not appear, to engage in partisan politics. Suspicion that a prosecuting attorney permits political considerations to affect his decision should be avoided.”
Efforts to obtain comments from Sedita’s supervising attorneys, Flaherty, Bargnesi and Finnerty, all present at the April meeting, were unsuccessful.
The law firm of Hodgson Russ was listed as the contact for the Friends of Frank Sedita Committee. The firm donated $500 to the May fundraiser. Attorney Joseph Sedita, a cousin of the DA and a partner at Hodgson Russ, said the law firm has nothing to do with the committee. He said he uses the firm’s address, but there is no official connection between the committee and the firm.
Earlier this year, Frank Sedita made donations to several political organizations, in addition to the Democrats. One of them was for $125 to the Erie County Republican Committee. In 2011, he gave both major parties each $1,000.
What are Sedita’s plans for building up a political campaign account that about four years ago had about $18,000?
He did not answer that question asked by The News.
There has been speculation that he might run for judge, though several months ago he indicated to The News he had no such plans. Sedita, in his statement to The News, also did not answer the question of whether he planned to seek a judgeship.
Under judicial election guidelines in New York, candidates may begin to raise money nine months before a political party conducts reviews and endorsements. The Erie County Democrats and Republicans generally hold judicial nominating conventions in September, so money from Sedita’s May fundraiser would fall within the allowable amount of time for seeking money to run for judge.