West Side residents struggled for years against a suspected drug house on West Delavan Avenue that they considered a neighborhood scourge.
So when police raided the house Feb. 27 and confiscated $50,000 worth of heroin and another $70,000 in cash, neighbors celebrated what they hoped was removal of an entire gang of bad guys.
But now neighbors and elected officials are appalled that one defendant’s lawyer is fighting to return the defendant to the streets. They are doubly appalled that the defense lawyer is also their own state senator – Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo.
Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera pronounced it “just terrible” that Grisanti’s priorities now lie with his criminal clients.
“Anyone has the right to legal counsel, but this puts him against the same people he represents,” said Rivera, a Democrat. “Defending these people in federal court creates a conflict.”
Neighbors of the house (which the federal indictment describes as a “known stash location”) also are furious that their senator is fighting to free Steven Martinez after their own effort to put him behind bars. The Connecticut Street resident was one of five men charged Feb. 27 as part of a Southern Tier Drug Task Force investigation resulting in federal charges that included “maintaining a premises for the possession and distribution of a controlled substance.”
The senator said he understands the concerns of constituents who have complained to him, but makes no apologies for providing the legal representation to which Martinez is entitled.
“I am a criminal defense attorney and everybody is entitled to representation,” he said. “I think I am able to separate the two easily.”
Grisanti said the Martinez case represents one of approximately 30 on his schedule, and that he should not be asked to refuse such cases just because someone in the district might object. He said he should be able to represent anyone seeking his help.
He would not directly answer a question as to whether he recognized any conflict of interest in representing a drug suspect whose prosecution has long been sought by his constituents. But he also said he saw no obligation to recommend another attorney in this instance.
“I would not do that,” he said. “If someone comes to me and asks for representation, I would. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
“Do I have to ask if every single case that comes my way is going to cause a problem in my district?” he added. “I’m not going to pick and choose.”
The indictment against Martinez also said other defendants implicated in the drug operation barricaded the doors to the home and attempted to dispose of the drugs when police entered. Neighbors say they have known about drug activity on the premises for years.
“He’s chosen to represent these defendants while in public office,” said one neighbor who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution by gang members. “There’s an ethical, moral and practical conflict there. It just doesn’t make sense.”
The neighbor said the house has long constituted a threat to the area’s “quality of life,” even to the point of needles littering its front yard. The neighbor has even posted an on-line petition on change.org seeking support for legislation that would force lawmakers to disclose their clients.
Grisanti’s dual occupations as politician and defense lawyer have come under scrutiny before. During the 2010 campaign that led to Grisanti’s upset victory, then-Democratic incumbent Antoine M. Thompson aired television ads attacking Grisanti for defending a heroin dealer, drug addict and murder suspect. Thompson stuck by the ads, while Grisanti labeled them “reprehensible.”
“Grisanti is a lawyer who has made money representing heroin traffickers, drug addicts, murderers and business owners charged with food stamp fraud,” a spokeman for Senate Democrats, Austin Shafran, said at the time. “He made money representing these people, and voters need to know the facts.”
Several lawyers and judges came to Grisanti’s defense in 2010, citing his participation in an “honorable profession” defending the rights of the accused.
“The Constitution demands that all defendants in the criminal justice system have proper representation,” former Erie County Surrogate Joseph S. Mattina said at the time. “Mark was fulfilling his responsibilities as a lawyer in representing these defendants.”
Attorney Andrew C. LoTempio, a former Buffalo city judge, also attacked Thompson in Grisanti’s defense.
“He’s suggesting that anyone who is in this honorable profession is unfit for office,” LoTempio said at the time.
But Grisanti’s critics now say his conflict is especially egregious because the arrest occurred in his district and in a situation neighbors attempted to correct for years. With Grisanti winning the office, they say he is now working against the interests of his own constituents.
“His job is to get them out of jail and put them back on the street,” Rivera said. “He probably should have begged off and said, 'This puts me in an impossible conflict.’”
Grisanti said he told one constituent who called his Senate office to complain that he should properly contact him on such matters at his legal office on Niagara Street. But one neighbor said the senator is missing the point by failing to recognize the conflict between representing a criminal and his own constituents.
“I told him, ‘Our tax money is paying you and you are representing drug dealers,’” the neighbor said.