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Democrats attack Niagara County public info officer over asbestos case

LOCKPORT – The leader of the Niagara County Legislature’s Democratic minority and a Democratic candidate for a Legislature seat are calling for the abolition of the job of county Public Information Officer Christian W. Peck, whom they accuse of issuing a false press release over the Shaw Building asbestos case.

Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso said that he may ask legislators to fire Peck at the Aug. 4 meeting.

“I’m sure we’ll talk about it,” said Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls.

After attending a July 9 meeting with officials from the state Labor Department’s Bureau of Public Employee Safety and Health, Peck issued a news release that said the county would be flagged for “six minor ‘performance violations.’ ”

When the actual state report came out two weeks later, the county was charged with eight violations, all of which the state deemed “serious.”

“I’m happy to say that I stand 100 percent by that release,” Peck said Monday.

Democratic politicians said Monday that Peck should be fired for allegedly giving out false information. Peck, a patronage appointee, has been a longtime target of the Democratic minority in the Legislature, which annually files an unsuccessful budget amendment calling for the abolition of his $59,889-a-year job.

“I think he’s misled the public,” Virtuoso charged. “First of all, he’s a political hack.” The job also is unnecessary, in Virtuoso’s opinion.

“The clerk of the Legislature should be qualified enough to write press releases. That’s what we used to do,” Virtuoso said.

Meanwhile, Russell J. DeFranco, the Democratic candidate for 11th District legislator, called on his opponent, Legislator Anthony J. Nemi, I-Lockport, to use his clout as the chairman of the Administration Committee to get rid of Peck, who has been sitting in on the county’s investigative interviews on the asbestos case. County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz has promised the Legislature that he will hold accountable the persons or persons responsible for allowing welfare workers to remove asbestos from the basement of the Shaw Building, the headquarters of the Health and Mental Health departments, without protective gear.

The asbestos was removed in late May, but the state report indicated it appeared to be a small amount found on the floor, apparently pipe wrapping that fell off. However, there was significant asbestos in the basement crawl space.

DeFranco, a former Niagara Falls policeman, said he was “shocked” to learn of Peck’s attendance at the interviews. He criticized Nemi for allegedly trying to belittle blue-collar union president William Rutland, who reported the asbestos situation to state and federal authorities.

“We should all expect my opponent to look out for the county workers first and not his hired political operative,” DeFranco said. “As a fiscal conservative, it’s clear to me that eliminating this wasteful public information officer position should happen immediately. The taxpayers should not have to foot the bill any longer for a wasteful political position. I call on Chairman Nemi to take the lead, eliminate this position, and put the taxpayers first.”

Nemi said, “I attended the same meeting Mr. Peck did. What he was reporting is what we were told in the closure meeting. The word ‘serious’ never came up in the closure meeting.”

He dismissed the motion of terminating Peck. “I think Mr. Peck’s doing a fine job,” Nemi said.

As for sitting in on meetings, “It was my idea,” Peck said. “This has become a media story. If I have to speak credibly on this issue, I want to speak from first-hand knowledge.”

He said the violations the state cited were called serious only because asbestos was involved.

Peck added, “We’re getting dinged for a (lack of) labels in a dirty crawl space. We’re getting dinged for not having plastic garbage bags. We’re getting dinged for not having asbestos training.”

“They made up total falsehoods,” Rutland charged. “I was accused of scaring the public. The public should be scared that the county hired someone to spread lies.”