First of two parts
On first impression, Diane M. La-Vallee seems too cheery to be a hard-nosed district attorney. She appeared light-hearted several days ago while extending a lanky arm and a smile to each of the 60 Cheektowaga police officers hunkered down over a meal at a local fire hall.
After the cops had finished their burgers and wings they would decide whether their Police Benevolent Association would endorse her for Erie County district attorney.
She was nearly certain they wouldn't. LaVallee, the Republican candidate, suspected the leaders had promised to endorse her opponent, Democrat Frank A. Sedita III.
"I have to try," she muttered.
She's glad she did.
Some of the PBA members, mainly the retirees, had worked with LaVallee in the district attorney's office before Frank J. Clark forced her out when he took over in 1997. But the retirees would not get to vote, and most of the active-duty cops didn't know her. Their body language showed it.
By the time LaVallee tore into her speech, she was not cheery and light-hearted.
Good trial attorneys become good orators. They become comfortable as the center of attention. LaVallee has spent 25 years in a courtroom, and in that time she put away swindlers, killers and pedophiles, all in some of the region's ugliest cases.
She quickly took command.
"When's the last time you testified in a felony trial in Erie County . . . in the last month?"
She sought a show of hands. None rose.
"In the last six months?"
"A preliminary hearing -- in the last month?"
LaVallee, pacing toward her audience, pounded Clark with an often-heard criticism: That the exodus of veteran prosecutors from the office -- which Clark has acknowledged -- has taken a toll. About a third of the felony arrests in Erie County this decade, 33.9 percent, led to felony convictions. The figure is 41.4 percent for the rest of the state outside New York City, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
LaVallee thinks it's logical to attribute this mediocre performance to Sedita, one of Clark's deputies and the candidate the DA hopes succeeds him.
She wielded other anti-Clark themes as anti-Sedita themes: Clark's office talks down to cops. It's unfriendly to crime victims. It's combative with stakeholders outside the office when it need not be.
"I do not come here with an apology for my behavior," she said, a reference to Sedita. "I do not come here telling you I am a changed person."
"I want your endorsement. And I believe I need your endorsement to win this race," she said. But she assured them that even without the endorsement, her office would still maintain a good relationship with Cheektowaga police.
She finished to a burst of applause, answered a couple of questions and departed, still believing that the endorsement had been promised to Sedita.
"She seemed to be very sincere, a down-to-earth person," one of the retirees, Jerry Imiola, said the next morning. He said the rank and file had endorsed her without opposition.
In a political race where police have a keen interest in the outcome, and their relations with the district attorney has become a campaign issue, Sedita could no longer claim he had the support of every union. Most had flocked to him after their favorite candidate, Ken Case, withdrew and endorsed Sedita.
Cheektowaga's members broke from the pack.
"When I joined the DA's office in 1978 there were very few women," said Dennis Vacco, who became LaVallee's boss when she joined the office in 1983 and later was elected state attorney general. "Even by 1983, when Diane got there, she was a woman prosecutor in a man's world. She was not the least bit intimidated. And she went on to great success."
LaVallee is the oldest daughter born to a Buffalo lawyer, Courtland "Corky" LaVallee, and a registered nurse, Annette, who died in 2001. When she was 8, someone asked her father which of his two sons would become a lawyer. He said he expected Diane would.
She graduated from Williamsville East High School and the University at Buffalo Law School, intending to work as a corporate attorney. But in the sunrise of her career she found it dull to handle mortgage closings all day and sought work as a prosecutor. Her law school classmates who were working as prosecutors seemed happier because, she figured, they were confident with their mission.
"Almost immediately I realized this is the place where I belong," she said.
That was 25 years ago. Now 50, LaVallee has spent half of her life as a prosecutor.
She rose quickly in the DA's office. When she was 34, then-District Attorney Kevin Dillon named her to head a unit dealing with assault, abuse and rape cases. LaVallee was carving out a specialty for herself, prosecuting sex crimes, and especially sex crimes against children. She was part of the team that founded a new Child Advocacy Center in downtown Buffalo in 1994.
"I think Diane has prosecution in her blood," said Karin DelValle, who worked for La-Vallee as a child advocate. They became friends, and DelValle believes LaVallee's experience is more varied than Sedita's.
"Frank's a good attorney," she said. "They are both good attorneys. It's not about who's a better attorney. It's about who's a better administrator. She's open to other people's opinions. You can disagree with her, and she will take that into consideration."
LaVallee was the first Erie County prosecutor to use DNA in a murder trial and the first to take advantage of a new law that allows child sex-abuse victims to testify before the grand jury on videotape so they need not appear in person.
During many of LaVallee's years in the office, Frank Clark was Dillon's second-in-command. According to some workers in the office at the time, Clark didn't like it when LaVallee would go around him and deal directly with the boss. When Dillon went on to a judgeship and Clark was elected DA, he forced out LaVallee in one of his first acts.
At the time, Clark said he had accepted LaVallee's resignation "with deep regret" because she had decided to go in a new direction.
LaVallee, reluctantly speaking about the experience recently, said she would not have left the DA's office voluntarily.
"I would like to know why he fired me," she said.
Clark won't say.
"The first thing I did as district attorney was bring her down and tell her it would be wiser for her to work someplace else," he said recently. "The reasons for that I don't want to get into."
As for his office's conviction rate, he says it's around 96 percent when considering the cases that go to the grand jury and end up with a conviction of a crime.
>Joined Vacco's unit
LaVallee didn't stay unemployed for long. Vacco said that once he heard she was available, he encouraged her to apply to his attorney general's office. He had begun a new unit to help district attorneys around the state with complicated murder trials, and he put her in charge. Vacco, a Republican, didn't care that LaVallee remained a Democrat. "There was no Democratic way to prosecute a case as opposed to a Republican way," he said.
She stayed with the attorney general's office through Eliot Spitzer's first term as attorney general, then in 2004 joined a private law firm. She immediately longed for prosecutorial work, so while working for a private firm she offered her services to Orleans County District Attorney Joseph Cardone.
"I'd say we were very very fortunate to have her out here for a couple of years," said Cardone.
"When you have children victims you are permitted to videotape their testimony so they don't have to come in before the grand jury and testify. We hadn't been doing that," he said. "When she came out here to Orleans she started doing that. And we got convictions on every one."
>A fish out of water
LaVallee will say that while in private practice -- she eventually opened her own office -- she felt like a fish out of water. In 2007, she went to work for the state Department of Taxation and Finance, supervising special investigations being conducted in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse. That's her job today.
She lives alone in a quiet North Buffalo neighborhood. She golfs, and for a quick bite she's partial to Mighty Taco.
For a time she was a researcher for the soap opera "General Hospital," whose producers would consult her when they needed to create and script a believable courtroom scene.
While working for Dillon and Vacco, LaVallee prosecuted some gruesome cases: long-term abuse against young people and bloody murders.
LaVallee does not seem ground down by the mountain of crime-scene photos and evidence of cruelty that has passed before her over the years.
"We were baking pies together, from grapes that we harvested from the fence between our yards, when she told me some of the horrendous things that go on in the community," a neighbor said for a Buffalo News profile of LaVallee in 1993. "You'd expect her to be affected in ways that you could see, but every time I see her she's beaming and has a wonderful energy about her."
Erie County's first murder trial using DNA evidence concerned the 1991 death of Ronald Braid, 39, whose body had been found with multiple stab wounds and cuts.
The Braid murder occurred in Cheektowaga, and when LaVallee appeared before the town's PBA she credited the department and the detectives from the early 1990s who helped find the DNA sample that convicted the killer, Braid's former lover, Ronald A. Giomundo.
A few days after learning that the PBA members had endorsed her, the good news had fallen flat for LaVallee. The PBA leadership did not want to appear at a news conference with her to announce the endorsement. The union's executive committee had not endorsed her.
LaVallee discussed the setback with her usual cheer. She even laughed about it.
Soon after, she and her campaign adviser, former County Republican Chairman Bob Davis, had patched together a different approach. The PBA retirees would appear at a news conference to say the union had voted to endorse her.
They gathered on a blustery day at Cheektowaga Town Hall -- two retirees, LaVallee and Davis. Not a television camera was in sight. No matter.
This was a moment when LaVallee could repeat that while police union leaders were going with Case, the rank-and-file cops were with her.
"Well, this is it, babe," she said.
TUESDAY: Frank A. Sedita III, candidate for district attorney