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Acting DA's ethics reform plan draws fire from election rivals

Flaherty and Flynn photos WBFO file. Sacha photo courtesy MarkSacha.com.

Two challengers in the race for Erie County District Attorney are taking aim at the Acting DA, charging that the latter's proposed reforms to the county's Code of Ethics smack of hypocrisy.

Flaherty's proposed changes to the Code of Ethics include updated definitions on political party officials and prohibited political activities, limits to campaign contributions from entities who do business with Erie County and tougher penalties for violations of certain rules.

Both John Flynn, the candidate endorsed by the Erie County Democratic Committee, and Mark Sacha, a former member of the DA's office who was dismissed under controversial circumstances, say Acting DA Michael Flaherty's reform plan is his first effort to address corruption since becoming the number two person in the office under Frank Sedita eight years ago. 

Flynn said during that period of time, the DA's office did not prosecute many tough cases and did not follow up on cases brought before them. One of those cases, alleged election law violations by longtime political operative Steven Pigeon, led then-staffer Sacha to publicly criticize Sedita and previous DA Frank Clark for not pursuing the matter further. In 2009, not long after making those critical remarks, Sacha - who had worked in the DA's office for more than two decades - was fired.

"He was in charge of the day-to-day operation of the District Attorney's office and he was the former District Attorney's top advisor in the office when it came to all policy decisions that were made," Flynn said. "For the past eight years, they've done nothing on ethics."

Flaherty, in a telephone interview with WBFO, replied to Flynn's criticism.

"You know I'm running against the Democratic (Party) machine whose executive committee is primarily made up of county patronage employees," Flaherty said.

Flynn and Sacha both took aim at proposed changes to campaign contributions. Sacha told WBFO that there has been a long-running culture of pressuring staff members to contribute toward the DA's election campaign. 

"Sedita and Flaherty took it to a whole new level where they were systematically running these fundraisers and, from my understanding, writing notes on people's solicitations suggesting amounts," Sacha said. 

Flynn suggested that if one looks closely at a campaign financial disclosure report filed by Flaherty last month, one would notice a significant percentage of the donations came from within his office. 

Flaherty, when asked to comment about Sacha's candidacy, would not speak of the former staffer. But he did respond to Flynn's remarks.

"Some of my colleagues here at the DA's office donated to my campaign because they support a career prosecutor to run this office, over a perennial political candidate who they know will use this office to play politics," Flaherty said.

And as for his proposed reforms? Flaherty, who answered questions from lawmakers at a recent Erie County Legislature's Government Affairs Committee meeting, told reporters after that meeting that it is ultimately up to lawmakers to decide.

"If county lawmakers want to pass a law prohibiting county employees from donating to county elected officials or candidates, I would support that law," Flaherty told WBFO.

The challengers also took aim at Flaherty's proposed elimination of what he calls the "friends and family patronage machine." Under his proposed ethics reforms, relatives of political party officials would be prohibited from being appointed to county positions.

Both Sacha and Flynn contend patronage is how Flaherty got his position as the number two man under Sedita, having served as Sedita's campaign manager. 

Flaherty again dismissed Flynn's attacks as those of a candidate backed by a political machine. In his interview with WBFO, Flaherty thanked Flynn for "jumping into the ethics debate" and encouraged the latter to commit to ethics reform. He also offered a reponse to Flynn's vow not to accept campaign donations from any DA office employee, regardless of rank or responsibility.

"I'd like to see Mr. Flynn pledge to not accept any support from any members of the Erie County Democratic Committee," Flaherty said.

Sacha, meanwhile, expressed his support for ethics reform but referred to the Flaherty Plan as a "dodge," and suggested that the real problem is an unwillingness by many prosecutors to address laws already on the books.

"This is an insincere effort by Mr. Flaherty to dupe the public into believing that he intends to prosecute public corruption," Sacha said. 

The primary election for what is already unfolding as perhaps the nastiest local race of 2016 is scheduled for Tuesday, September 13.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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