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State panel finds that Hamburg, Elma justices should be admonished for political donations

Andrew P. Fleming’s law firm bought nearly $12,000 worth of tickets to political functions and contributed more than $12,000 to political organizations and candidates.

His wife also bought two tickets to a political dinner.

Joseph A. Sakowski made more than $20,000 in political contributions and his law firm contributed an additional $2,800.

But since Fleming is a Hamburg village justice and Sakowski is an Elma town justice, those tickets and contributions were violations of the state rules for judges, according to the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.

In what might be considered a warning to judges across the state, the commission determined that both should be admonished for engaging in prohibited political activity, and they have agreed. There is a 30-day period in which they could ask for a review.

“It’s the mildest public discipline available to the commission under the law,” commission administrator Robert H. Tembeckjian said, adding that there is not expected to be any additional consequence or penalty.

The decisions were not unanimous, with three commission members dissenting in Sakowski’s case, and one member dissenting in Fleming’s, citing the First Amendment. Richard D. Emery said that the cases did not warrant the commission’s intervention and that the public discipline of the two judges is “unwarranted.”

“There was no issue for either of them for how they performed their jobs as judges. Nobody was taking any issue with anything they did on the bench,” said attorney Daniel M. Killelea, who represented both judges.

Sakowski has been a judge for 35 years in Elma, and he is a partner in Sakowski & Markello. The commission found that he made 69 prohibited political contributions totaling $20,633 from 2003 through January 2014, and an additional 26 totaling $2,851 through the law firm.

“As a judge for more than three decades, respondent should have been more sensitive to his obligation to strictly adhere to the ethical ban on political contributions,” the commission stated.

Fleming has been Hamburg village justice since 2006. This is the second time he has been admonished in two years, although the cases are unrelated. He was admonished publicly by the commission in 2013 for acting as an attorney for a crime victim and the victim’s family, although he had presided over prior proceedings in the case.

Fleming stipulated that from 2006 to 2013, he directly and/or indirectly through his law firm, Chiacchia & Fleming, made 71 ticket purchases totaling $11,960 and 27 prohibited contributions totaling $12,533 to political organizations and candidates. He also made two prohibited ticket purchases totaling $400 to political functions through his wife, who used a joint account.

Many of the contributions and ticket purchases were made with checks signed by Fleming’s law partner, Daniel J. Chiacchia, according to the commission.

But since the checks came from Fleming’s law firm, “there was at least an appearance that he was responsible for or endorsed those donations, or that at least a portion of the funds was attributable to him,” the commission said in its determination.

A number of the contributions made by both men were outside the “window period” for permissible political activity.

The commission stated that in admonishing Sakowski, “we remind every judge and judicial candidate of the obligation to know and abide by the ethical rules as interpreted and applied by the commission and the Advisory Committee.”

The commission can consider a previous admonishment in determining discipline, said Tembeckjian, who said that if the new conduct is related to the previous, it could result in a stiffer penalty.

“The misconduct on its own was considered relatively mild,” he said.

email: bobrien@buffnews.com