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Vote on Ward stirs political memories

An old political scandal was dredged up last week as Niagara County Legislature Democrats voted against James W. Ward for a seat on the Niagara County Community College board of trustees.

Ward, a Newfane Republican, served eight years in the Legislature, and since his departure at the end of 2003, he has worked as a district aide to State Sen. George D. Maziarz.

Tuesday, the Legislature voted, 12-3, to confirm Ward's selection to the NCCC board for a term running until 2018.

Ward succeeds Edward Pawenski, 92, of North Tonawanda, who at Wednesday's board meeting completed his 50th year on the board. His term had expired.

The three Democrats in the Legislature -- Dennis F. Virtuoso, Owen T. Steed and Jason A. Zona, all of Niagara Falls -- voted against Ward.

"I find it very hard to vote for Mr. Ward," said Virtuoso, the minority leader. "When he was a legislator, he pleaded guilty to a scheme that involved defrauding the county."

He recalled that Ward pleaded guilty in connection with the Board of Elections salary scandal, a long-running affair that took up much of the Legislature's time in 2000.

The affair began in the wake of a December 1998 vote by the Legislature to cut the salaries of the election commissioners by 10 percent in the 1999 budget.

However, despite the lawmakers' mandate, the commissioners continued to be paid at the same rate as before. The Legislature didn't find that out until February 2000.

At the time, Ward was chairman of the Administration Committee that oversees financial and personnel matters.

He was accused of working with the election commissioners, Republican Michael J. Norris and Democrat Judith M. Cirifalco, to prevent the paperwork implementing the cut from making its way through the county payroll system.

After a criminal investigation by the District Attorney's Office, Ward was charged with official misconduct, a misdemeanor.

On Nov. 30, 2001, he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct, a noncriminal violation, and was granted a conditional discharge.

Despite the controversy, Ward was re-elected in 2001 and served through 2003.

Cirifalco received an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal on two misdemeanors.

Norris, who is now county Republican Party chairman, received immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony.

"It was a noncriminal resolution," emphasized Legislator Paul B. Wojtaszek, R-North Tonawanda.

Ward did not return calls seeking comment.

Zona said he would have preferred the nomination of Robert Sdao, a former NCCC trustee who was replaced earlier this year by Vincent R. Ginestre, a Democratic attorney from North Tonawanda.

Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield, an NCCC trustee since 2005, was reappointed to a new term that runs through June 2018. The vote for him was unanimous.

Ross saluted Pawenski, whom he called "a founding father of Niagara County Community College. He was on the Board of Supervisors committee that did the work toward establishing Niagara County Community College. That committee goes back to the late '50s."

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com