Cheektowaga police Friday said they are investigating complaints that political activist Frank C. Max, a town Sanitation Department employee, coerced other workers to distribute campaign literature in advance of Tuesday's hotly contested Democratic primary in the town.
"It never happened," said Max, claiming the charge amounts to political dirty tricks by the town's Democratic Party organization. "Getting police to investigate something is their (modus operandi) before the end of any campaign in this town," he said.
Max -- whose house was shot up during a kickback scandal in the Sanitation Department last year -- heads Progressive Democrats of Cheektowaga, a 500-member organization backing several challengers in the primary, including Council Member William P. Rogowski for supervisor.
Rogowski's opponent, incumbent Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak, Friday said he received "two or three" complaints involving seasonal and at least one full-time worker. The complaints alleged that Max, a crew chief in the department, used strong-arm tactics in recruiting workers to distribute campaign materials.
The workers feared they could lose their job or be reassigned to less desirable work if they didn't help Max, sources claimed. "There supposedly were boxes of materials with peoples' names on them that Max was handing out in his office," according to one town official.
The first call, sources said, came from the mother of a summer employee in the Sanitation Department. "She really hit the roof that her son was being pressured," one official close to the situation said.
"If only one mother out of the 300 or 400 kids we've had come through here the past four summers is complaining, I'd say that's not a bad track record," Max said. "If she felt her son was being forced, she should have come to me or Highway Superintendent Christopher Kowal, Max added.
A Cheektowaga police spokesman confirmed that detectives have taken statements in the case and are conferring with the district attorney's office. Max countered that he has "at least 15 people ready and willing to tell you or the police or anyone else that they were not pressured into helping us, that they wanted to get involved."
Max said about 15 sanitation workers are active in the Progressive Democrats club, but that "absolutely no political activity occurs on town time."
"I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that this whole thing was concocted by Tom Johnson," Max asserted. "He pulled the same thing with the police before a committee race four years ago," Max said.
"But what can I expect from a guy (Johnson) who's been telling people I shot up my own house," Max said in a telephone interview. No one was ever arrested last November after two shotgun blasts were fired into Max's home while he and his wife were present.
Johnson, a veteran town councilman up for re-election this year, and Gabryszak are bitter political enemies of Max.
Max said that in order for strong-arm tactics to work, "you've got to have something to hold over their head and we've got no power to hire or fire anybody; that's the Town Board."
As for giving summer workers poor work assignments, Max said: "There are no good work assignments for the seasonal people. They're either cutting grass bags or cutting recyclable bags; they're both dirty, tough jobs."
"This is par for the course in a campaign here. I wouldn't expect anything less from Tom Johnson. If anyone felt that he had to help, that's absolute nonsense," Max said.
Kowal, the highway superintendent, also has jurisdiction over the Sanitation Department as the result of a shake-up in town government earlier the year in the aftermath of a kickback scandal in which four workers were convicted.
Kowal said Friday he told the detective who interviewed him that he knew of no political activities in the Highway or Sanitation departments. Johnson was angered by Max blaming him for the police investigation.
"That's totally preposterous," Johnson fumed. "I'm not the one who reported it to the Police Department."