The Erie County Legislature's Republicans want to make it illegal in the future for an elected county official to remain in office after being convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, as Legislator George A. Holt Jr. has done.
Holt, a Buffalo Democrat, pleaded guilty Jan. 9 to two misdemeanor charges of filing a fraudulent tax report. He admitted he failed to turn over $20,000 in sales taxes collected at his Buffalo restaurant in 2004 and filed false reports to conceal his wrongdoing.
Prosecutors did not insist he resign from office, and nothing in the Erie County Charter forces him to do so. But since he pleaded guilty, a wave of public opinion has crashed against Holt's continued ability to influence taxes, spending and other public business.
While Legislature chairman in 2004 and 2005, Holt pushed to increase Erie County's sales tax rate, yet he was acting outside the law by retaining tax money he should have forwarded to state and county governments. It was not his first case; the state Department of Taxation and Finance had pursued him for unpaid sales taxes before.
"Like a lot of small businesses, we have at times found it difficult to keep up with the bookkeeping necessary to ensure the accuracy of our sales reporting," Holt said as he apologized for his crimes last week and vowed to remain a legislator. He has agreed to repay the $20,000 plus another $17,600 in penalties and interest before his sentencing March 9.
The Republicans' proposal, if it becomes law, would not affect Holt because it cannot apply retroactively to his situation. The law would forbid any legislator or county official elected countywide from continuing to serve if convicted in the future of a felony or misdemeanor under New York's penal law.
"We need to send a message that as a Legislature we are not going to put up with this type of conduct," said Republican Minority Leader John J. Mills of Orchard Park, who sponsored the law with Republicans Michael H. Ranzenhofer of Clarence and Barry A. Weinstein of Amherst.
Democratic Party Chairman Leonard Lenihan has not called for Holt to resign. Nor has Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda. Mills, too, initially met the news of Holt's guilty plea with a more accepting attitude, saying it was up to the voters in Holt's urban district to decide whether he remains in office.
Mills still is not calling for Holt to resign but says the Legislature must show it can police itself and county government.
"If I were in George's shoes," he said, "I probably would have resigned."
Democrats control the Legislature, 12-3, and they can easily ignore the Republican proposal if they care to. But the matter can be unsheathed as a campaign weapon this fall when all 15 lawmakers will be up for re-election.
The Republicans will tout their proposal at a news conference scheduled today by Republican Party Chairman James P. Domagalski. He called for Holt to resign last week.
The law cannot be voted on when the Legislature meets at 2 p.m. Thursday because it has been before the body for too brief a time. Marinelli can send it to a committee as it ages, but Mills will object if she directs it to the Government Affairs Committee because Holt leads that panel.
Contacted Tuesday, Holt refused to comment on the Republican measure.
"Let them take that wherever they want to take it," he said initially, then had one of his lawyers, H. Todd Bullard, respond later in the day.
Bullard called the proposal poorly written and intended to rub salt in Holt's wounds. Also, it will create confusion and expense should a future legislator be driven from office and a special election held because of, say, a misdemeanor charge of driving while ability impaired, Bullard said.
"I think it's really to slap George in the face," he said, adding later, "Erie County has plenty of more important things to worry about."