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Two commercials aired so far by County Executive Gorski, the Democrat, describe his opponent, Joel A. Giambra, as a city official who cost the city big money by failing to stop insider thefts and health insurance for dead employees.

Republican Giambra counters that the Gorski ads are inaccurate, distorted, out of context and blame him for failures not under the control of the comptroller's office.

The theme of one Gorski commercial is a 1994 City Hall scandal, with $200,111 in public money carried away by an assistant registrar in vital statistics.

What was Giambra's responsibility as city comptroller?

Shortly after he became comptroller in 1990, Giambra sent the Council an audit of Vital Statistics, along with a letter criticizing the way the division handled money. Giambra's letter raised the danger of theft, because the Vital Statistics staff waited until the end of work to number death certificates instead of numbering each at submission.

"This audit recommends that this practice should stop to 'alleviate the possibility of cash receipts being altered and/or taken,' " Giambra's letter said.

Filing the letter and making himself available to answer questions was the extent of his responsibility, said Giambra, adding that he was hoping Council members would take note.

At the time, Giambra was criticized for allowing the Vital Statistics office to go unaudited for the four years leading up to the arrest of David May.

He also was accused of ignoring a request for an audit from May's boss, City Clerk Charles Michaux III. Michaux requested the audit on May 5, 1993 -- 14 months before May was arrested.

Democrats, however, say Giambra, as city comptroller, should have forced the Common Council and the mayor to pay attention, going public, if necessary, as "watchdog" of the city purse.

Former Republican county comptrollers Alfreda Slominski and her successor, Nancy A. Naples, would not have bowed out with a letter, Democrats said.

The current county comptroller is a "watchdog" who demands attention, and that is what a comptroller is supposed to do, Gorski spokesman Michael Hughes said.

"We may not actively agree with her, but at least she is doing her job," said Hughes.

Erie County for 12 years has had a comptroller of one party and administration of another.

But in 1990, Giambra and the city administration both were Democratic. Was this a factor in his not going public back then?

No, said Giambra, who became a Republican last year. He said he did his job and the Common Council did not not follow up then or in later public budget hearings.

The "suitcases of cash" commercial said: "Giambra claims he wasn't even embarrassed about failing to do his job."

Giambra replies this was not what he said, that the word "embarrassed" is taken out of context and twisted. He points to Buffalo News stories to back this up, including one on Oct. 5, 1994. "Things are being done to improve the system," Giambra said. "I am not embarrassed at all by the productivity and work that's come out of this office."

A second Gorski commercial, replete with rows of gravestones, blames Giambra for city payment of health benefits in the names of dozens of dead retirees, with the number escalating from 64 in 1990 to 139 two years later.

"It's too bad it took Joel Giambra almost four years to figure out how to do his job," the ad says.

Giambra said that after he took office, he learned that payments for health insurance were authorized separately in 50 different city departments and that the city might be paying Blue Cross-Blue Shield health coverage for deceased pensioners.

"It was my auditors who uncovered the problem back in 1992," he said.

A Dec. 22, 1992, Buffalo News story revealed the problem and credited Giambra's staff for uncovering it.

The city eventually fired one Labor Relations Department employee responsible for tracking benefits. In March 1993, Blue Cross agreed to repay the city $441,428 and Blue Shield, $80,000, Giambra said.

"He still lost $350,000 that the city will never see again," Hughes said.

Giambra, meanwhile, insists he did not lose anything, recouped $441,428 and put a halt to a bad practice.

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