NIAGARA FALLS – The bitterness in the race for the 5th District seat in the Niagara County Legislature was ramped up another notch Thursday.
Just a day after the announcement that a Republican operative would not be prosecuted over Democratic accusations of nominating petition fraud in the district, Niagara Falls GOP Chairwoman Patricia J. Castillo issued a news release demanding a criminal probe of purported fraud by the Democrats.
The incumbent, Legislator Jason A. Zona, and a Niagara Falls lawyer, Johnny G. Destino, both of them Democrats, were accused by the GOP of fraudulently obtaining an absentee ballot for a Conservative Party voter in Tuesday’s primary election and then trying to manipulate the way she voted.
The voter said in an interview that, after writing in Zona’s name for the Conservative nomination on an absentee ballot, she thought something was amiss and decided to vote in person Tuesday to cancel out that ballot.
She said she voted for Giulio G. Colangelo, the former legislator who is running against Zona.
Colangelo, a member of the Independence Party backed by the GOP, won the Conservative Party nomination Tuesday in the face of Zona’s write-in challenge.
Zona and Destino fought back aggressively against Thursday’s attack. Zona read the affidavit the Republicans obtained from the voter and said, “If she signed that affidavit, it’s a flat-out lie.”
“This looks actionable to me. I’ve never been to her place. … It looks completely fabricated,” said Destino, a former Republican who quit the party after losing a primary challenge last year to State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane.
Castillo said, “The affidavit speaks for itself. I’m not trumping up anything here.”
The voter said that a man she believed to be Destino, although she didn’t identify him in her affidavit, went to her apartment on or about Sept. 4 and suggested that she cast an absentee ballot.
“I did help with an absentee ballot campaign,” Destino said.
Records at the Niagara County Board of Elections showed that Destino picked up seven absentee ballots for 5th District voters of various parties, including the woman who signed the affidavit.
Her absentee ballot application, dated Sept. 5, said she needed an absentee ballot because of “temporary illness or physical disability.”
“I thought it was a convenience and that they were being neighborly,” the voter said in a telephone interview. “I’m healthy and not disabled in any way. … I didn’t feel like I needed an absentee ballot.”
“The woman told me she had issues with her legs,” said Zona, who took the blank ballot to the woman Sept. 6 and showed her where to write in his name.
The voter said, “He told me what names to write down. It was so fast and so slick. … I went to the actual polling place because I felt something wasn’t right about it.”
Zona denounced Castillo for issuing a news release before making a request for an investigation to the Sheriff’s Office. Chief Deputy Thomas C. Beatty learned of the situation from a Buffalo News reporter.