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Olma aims to restore his honor in court Civil suit accuses officers of falsely arresting him

Gregory B. Olma says his political career ended on primary Election Night, Sept. 12, 2000. But it wasn't because he lost an election.

That was the night Olma, a white Erie County legislator representing a largely African-American district on Buffalo's East Side, committed political suicide. Or so it seemed at the time.

Olma was accused of making racial and sexual slurs to two black, female election inspectors.

He was handcuffed by Buffalo Police officers in front of his house while friends and family watched, taken to Police Headquarters and booked on four misdemeanor charges.

One hundred people picketed his house two days later amid calls to resign by black leaders and officials from his own Democratic Party. He hasn't won an election since.

There was only one problem, Olma claims in a civil rights suit scheduled for trial Tuesday in U.S. District Court: The charges were not true.

"Absolutely not," Olma, 47, said when asked if he ever uttered the slurs. "And that's a fact that's long been established. It never happened."

The criminal charges were dropped after Olma was cleared by a grand jury. Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said grand jurors did not believe the testimony of the two election inspectors.
Erie County agreed to a $25,000 out-of-court settlement in January to settle Olma's suit against the election inspectors, Karen R. Gregory and Adrea M. Newbern.

And now Olma is going to trial, accusing four members of the Buffalo Police Department -- Lts. Albert Liberatore and Mark Michalek and Officers Richard Lopez and Martin Forero -- with falsely arresting him.

"This case solely deals with the police officers," said Olma's attorney James Ostrowski, "and it's our contention they lacked probable cause to arrest, which is a violation of the Fourth Amendment."

Carmen J. Gentile, an assistant corporation counsel representing the four officers, responded in court papers that Olma's arrest was lawful and that officers acted properly in carrying out their duties.

He said the grand jury's failure to charge Olma and Erie County's settling the case against the two inspectors have no bearing on whether police had probable cause to arrest Olma, as he said they did.

"I can't answer for the County of Erie as to why they settled the case," Gentile said.

"But with regard to the grand jury action, that is a prosecutorial function," he said. "You need probable cause to make an arrest, and then leave it to the court system and the district attorney to make determinations."

Forero, one of the four officers, said shortly after the arrest that he felt the two women told the truth. "I believe it. It happens all the time," Forero told The Buffalo News. "For as much racial tolerance as there is, it still happens."

The primary Election Night incident took place at a polling place in the Adam Mickiewicz Library at 612 Fillmore Ave., across from Olma's home.

Olma was running for a seat on the Erie County Democratic Committee, and said he had credentials to check the voting results after the election. He said Gregory and Newbern, the election inspectors, initially refused him access.

Olma said he was frustrated and words were exchanged. But he said he never uttered a racial or sexual slur.

The two women said he did and complained to Sue Ellen Slisz, a supervisor from the Erie County Board of Elections. The election inspectors then filed a formal complaint against Olma at a police station house on Bailey Avenue. Newbern and Slisz are both on the list of witnesses expected to testify. Gregory recently died.

Ostrowski, Olma's attorney, said the four officers came with the election inspectors back to the polling place and called Olma out of the building.

That's about all Olma and the police agree on.

Ostrowski said in a pretrial memorandum that the officers claimed that Olma refused to say anything for five minutes while they asked him for his version of what happened.

Olma, according to Ostrowski, said the police approached him "in a loud and abusive manner, used foul language, failed to explain fully why they were there, threatened to arrest him if he spoke -- 'shut the [expletive deleted] up or you're under arrest' -- and then in fact arrested him when [Olma] protested his innocence."

Olma was charged with coercion, aggravated harassment, harassment and resisting arrest.

City Judge David Manz dismissed the charges at Clark's request so a grand jury could sort out the matter.

The grand jury cleared Olma and the charges were dropped.

Olma, always a brash, in-your-face politician, never recovered politically. He is now a county employee.

He lost his bid for re-election in 2001, lost an Assembly primary race, finished dead last in a 2003 primary among four candidates seeking a seat on the County Legislature, and just last month, lost a race for the Buffalo Board of Education.

"I think it's important to clear my name," Olma said about why he filed the suit. "These guys did incredible damage to my personal reputation. They slandered me. Even when I ran for School Board this time, someone passed out anonymous materials based on this false arrest.

"They put me in handcuffs in front of my family and friends. My wife was in tears," Olma said. "Why? For what? For no reason. I haven't won an election since then. This is not the way I expected my political career to end."

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com

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