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Olma settles suit against election aides

Former Erie County Legislator Gregory B. Olma will collect money after settling a lawsuit against the county and two elections inspectors.

Neither the county attorney's office nor Olma, now a county employee, would disclose terms of the settlement. The amount could become public when checks are written because it involves county funds.

Olma had been issued a poll-watcher's certificate allowing him to inspect election results during the primary elections in September 2000, when he was running for a Democratic committeeman's position. But at the end of the night, when he tried to examine tallies in the Adam Mickiewicz Library at 612 Fillmore Ave., his voting place, he clashed with the inspectors, Karen R. Gregory and Adrea M. Newbern, over access.

They accused Olma of using racial slurs during their squabble. On their complaints, Buffalo police arrested Olma about two hours later, in full view of television cameras, on charges of coercion, aggravated harassment, harassment and resisting arrest.

The case went before a grand jury, which in November 2000 cleared Olma of any criminal wrongdoing.

"Our investigation did not disclose a single other individual, including other African-Americans present in the polling place, who heard any racial epithets whatsoever," District Attorney Frank J. Clark said at the time.

But Gregory, one of the inspectors, told The Buffalo News that other witnesses to the incident did not testify, perhaps out of fear they might lose their jobs.

Olma sued the elections inspectors and the Buffalo police officers in U.S. District Court. The settlement announced Wednesday applies only to the elections inspectors. A case is continuing against the police, whom Olma accused of false arrest and violating his right to free speech.

"This proves my point. I was innocent, and I was found innocent," Olma said Wednesday after his lawyer, James Ostrowski, announced the settlement.

Olma said the episode was designed to destroy his political career, "and it was successful. In the end, I was exonerated. But the damage was done."

In the Democratic primary the following year, Olma, who was seeking re-election as a county legislator, lost to David Dale. He remained on the ballot as the Conservative Party's candidate but lost in the general election.

Olma occasionally had sided with County Executive Joel A. Giambra, and over the years Giambra found jobs for him. He now holds a civil service position, senior administrative assistant for homeland security, which pays about $55,000 a year.

During the controversy in 2000, Frank Mesiah, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, asked the County Legislature to rewrite its charter to let it censure or remove legislators who act inappropriately, and Mesiah urged people not to judge the inspectors following the disclosure that they previously had made similar accusations.

Mesiah said Wednesday he had no problem with the settlement.

"There were people making certain allegations against him," Mesiah said. "Our role was to make sure that everybody was treated fairly and equitably. We didn't take sides with anybody because we didn't know all the facts."

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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