Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III did nothing illegal in raising more than $70,000 in campaign donations from his staff. But it still doesn’t make it right.
As News reporter Lou Michel wrote, the D.A. raised more than $80,000 at a recent political fund-raiser, with most of the money – $70,050 – coming from 85 of his 90 assistant district attorneys and 14 of his 15 investigators. It might be an indication of how much they like and admire their boss. Or, it might be an indication of how much they fear their boss’s ability to fire them at his whim.
The latter explanation seems plausible. Especially considering the story of how 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.” The meeting was held at 9 on a Sunday morning in the Armory Tavern on Connecticut Street.
The message, according to people who understandably wanted to remain anonymous, sounds persuasive. Enough so that anyone wanting to stay employed would dig deep. Such words as, “Do this, or else,” haven’t been repeated but the message is clear if, as the story goes, staff members were told by high-ranking supervisors Thomas Finnerty and James Bargnesi that they would be receiving invitations to attend a Sedita fund-raiser in May and that the future of the District Attorney’s Office could be uncertain.
The helpful hint delivered by Finnerty in this scenario included a mention that there were a few pay periods before the fund-raiser and staffers were told, depending on their salary level, that they should consider giving from $500 to $1,000.
And, if that weren’t pressure enough, the assistant district attorneys were told that there was stiff competition for their jobs and that if they were to reapply for their jobs today they would not stand a chance against sharper competition.
Sedita has denied coercion, but it smacks of Bill Clinton parsing the meaning of the word “is.” Sedita wasn’t present at the meeting. He doesn’t personally solicit donors for campaign contributions. And, as he pointed out, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo selected him to serve on the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. It would be interesting to hear Cuomo’s take on this issue.
But the timing of this fund-raising is at least curious for a district attorney who recently won re-election (cross-endorsed, thank you very much) and whose political ambitions are rumored to have a judgeship attached.
Sedita first ran for district attorney in 2008 and then again in November 2012. His campaign war chest after the 2008 election was about $18,000. It is now $171,121.15.
Those who spoke out against what they viewed as coercion did so anonymously. Again, understandable. Serving at someone’s pleasure offers few alternatives for what could be deemed insubordination.
There were also comments by former Assistant District Attorney Matthew A. Albert, fired by Sedita in an unrelated matter earlier this summer, who said he contributed $1,000 after receiving what he believed was a subtle threat from his supervisor (denied by the supervisor). Sedita, in an email, called Albert “…a disgruntled, disgraced and dishonest employee with an ax to grind.”
But it should be noted that Sedita has his supporters, who insist that there was no coercion and that previous district attorneys have raised money from staff members. But the extent of the donations – compared to earlier staff contributions of $40 to $150 – the early-morning Sunday meeting and timing so close to his last race are more than enough to raise uncomfortable questions.
The public deserves good answers – though we suspect it knows them already.