Two career prosecutors are making their final arguments in the race for district attorney in Erie County, and more than any case they've ever summed up before, it's getting much more interesting as they bring it to a close.
The race began months ago as a friendly battle between Frank J. Clark III, the No. 2 prosecutor in District Attorney Kevin Dillon's office, and Russell P. Buscaglia, who gave up his job as the state's chief Medicaid fraud prosecutor for the run.
It's friendly no longer. Buscaglia has challenged Clark's ethics, and Clark has complained to the Erie County Bar Association about Buscaglia's TV ads.
Clark, 53, had the edge as a near incumbent, the nomination of the Democratic Party with its enrollment advantage of 108,000 voters over the Republicans, and a better financed campaign, much of it from prosecutors in his office. Clark also has the Conservative and Independence party lines.
As of Oct. 21, Clark has outspent Buscaglia $204,000 to $108,000. But Buscaglia, 46, who carries the GOP and Liberty party endorsements, has made a fight of it with the help of $70,000 from the Erie County Republican Committee.
Buscaglia challenged Clark's ethics early on for not resigning his job as he did, and allowing assistant district attorneys to work on the campaign. Clark said there is no requirement for him to step down, and said there is no bar for assistants campaigning in off hours.
The office they seek, currently held by Dillon who is running for State Supreme Court, carries the responsibility of prosecuting nearly 47,000 crimes a year. It means supervising a staff of 91 prosecutors, pays $113,000 and, for many of its past occupants, has led to a state or federal judgeship.
Buscaglia, born and raised in Buffalo, is a graduate of the University at Buffalo and its law school. He served as a prosecutor from 1977 to 1989, leaving as the chief of its homicide bureau. He was an assistant U.S. attorney until 1995 -- convicting Buffalo parks chief Robert Delano during his stay -- and was a top assistant state attorney general for Dennis Vacco until July, when he left as chief Medicaid prosecutor.
Clark, as someone who helps run the district attorney's office, points to key roles in setting up a domestic violence bureau and a gangs task force that brings together local, county, state and federal agencies to fight.
Clark was born in Brooklyn, moved to Buffalo as a boy, and graduated from Niagara University and UB law school. He saw combat as a Marine Corps captain in Vietnam, spent from 1972 to 1979 in the district attorney's office as chief of the violent felony bureau -- whose cases included the Richard Long homicide -- and was in private practice for four years. He returned in 1983 as a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office as chief of the federal drug task force, and since 1988 has served as first deputy assistant district attorney.
The two candidates are on opposite ends on these issues:
Plea Bargaining: Buscaglia said he will allow no one charged with a crime against an elderly person to plead guilty to a lesser charge. He also said that drug dealers will not be allowed to plea bargain until they give up the source of their drugs.
Clark said Buscaglia shows a lack of understanding of how the office works.
"Many times the victim or the victim's family requests a plea," Clark said. "They would rather see a conviction than having the person have to testify."
He said drug dealers charged with serious felonies are not allowed to plead guilty without cooperating with authorities, and said prosecutors often refuse to plea bargain.
The DA Trying Cases: "The main duty of everyone in that office is to convict criminals and put criminals in jail," Buscaglia said. "In my view, the best way to do this is to be in the courtroom, not be an administrator in the office. . .
"I just think it's so important to be in the courtroom. I don't recall a district attorney in Erie County trying a case. But other district attorneys in the state do," he said. "You're sending a message to the public, this is an important case."
Clark said Buscaglia is partly right. District attorneys in other counties do try cases, but not those the size of Erie County.
Public Corruption: Buscaglia said there would be an increased emphasis on prosecuting public corruption if he wins, and points to his successful prosecution of Delano as an example. As he has in his ads, he criticized Clark and Dillon for turning the Delano prosecution over to the federal government.
Clark angrily disputes Buscaglia on Delano, saying it was a joint decision to use the federal courts because it would allow investigation by the FBI and federal statutes carried greater penalties.