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Politics nearly guarantees Sedita victory in run for State Supreme Court

When Frank A. Sedita III receives bipartisan backing for State Supreme Court later this month, there is not likely to be any question about his getting elected in November.

The successful behind-the-scenes effort, though, infuses about $173,000 into this year’s Supreme Court campaign from a treasury the Democratic district attorney accumulated over the past few years. And because he faces certain election and no need to spend such a hefty amount, questions surround the fate of those dollars, because of restrictions governing the use of judicial campaign funds.

Sedita did not return a Thursday call asking about his plans for the money, nor did the Office of Court Administration. But the power of his brimming campaign account has apparently helped seal the deal between the chairmen of the Erie County Democratic and Republican parties, who essentially will control the judicial nominating conventions for Sedita and the GOP choice – longtime GOP insider Emilio Colaiacovo.

Over the past few months, the district attorney emerged as the Democratic favorite for the judicial post after a seven-year stint as the county’s top prosecutor. And as the namesake of famous figures in local politics (his late grandfather was mayor of Buffalo and his late father also a State Supreme Court judge), even Western New York Republicans seemed to acknowledge Sedita’s political star power.

Now, in return for Democratic backing of the little known Colaiacovo, the GOP is ready to acknowledge Sedita’s eventual success. The rubber-stamp of the two parties’ judicial nominating conventions is expected Sept. 28, essentially ending a Supreme Court campaign that never really began.

“He has the qualifications and his long public service qualifies him to be a Supreme Court judge,” Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said Thursday. “I am certainly comfortable in supporting him for the New York State Supreme Court.”

Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner is also slated to back both Sedita and Colaiacovo, on Sept. 28.

Sedita, 54, ran unopposed for re-election as district attorney in 2012 after he was also cross-endorsed by both major parties. He now looks ahead to a 14-year term on the bench at $174,000 annually.

Until Thursday morning, when he announced his candidacy to the applause of his staff, Sedita has remained mum on judicial plans. He steadfastly refused to discuss the matter even though he was widely viewed as a candidate.

In fact, the Erie County Bar Association took it upon itself to rate Sedita’s judicial qualifications even though he did not apply because he was “rumored” to be a candidate. Sedita received a “qualified” rating, which stands above the lowest rating of “not recommended” and below the higher ratings of “well qualified” and “outstanding.”

The Buffalo News, meanwhile, has previously reported on the district attorney’s fundraising prowess. As far back as 2013, some members of his staff – though not all – told The News they felt they were taken advantage of when asked to consider donating to his fund just after his recent re-election as district attorney.

Named outstanding prosecutor for 2013 by the New York State Bar Association, he oversaw the prosecution of Riccardo McCray, the “City Grill shooter,” and Muzzammil Hassan, who was convicted of second-degree murder in the beheading of his wife.

Sedita has gained strong supporters who point to the high conviction rates of his office, his right of prosecutorial discretion in the cases he takes on and declines, his statewide stature as a former member of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on Public Corruption and as former head of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York.

As president of the statewide group, he led efforts to change the way law enforcement agencies handle witnesses and crime suspects to protect against false identification and forced confessions. The association this year advocated for a bill that would require all interrogations to be electronically recorded, either by audio or video, and to make it less likely that investigators “tip off” witnesses on whom to choose from a photo array of possible suspects.

Sedita said Thursday the changes could help eliminate misidentification, which he said is the number one cause of wrongful convictions.

“I have said repeatedly, and some people haven’t liked it, that I believe that for a prosecutor the exoneration of the innocent is as important as the prosecution of the guilty,” Sedita said.

He also supported changes Cuomo advanced to make the grand jury process more transparent when police shootings are involved.

But the district attorney has also has earned his share of critics who say that he shies away from tough cases, including those of Ronald “Todd” Epps and the cold case homicide of Patricia Rodriguez, a 21-year-old mother of two who was stabbed more than 100 times in 1979 in Lackawanna’s Holy Cross Cemetery.

Last month, Epps was effectively found guilty in federal court of killing Stacey Moss in 2009. State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s office took up the Rodriguez case last year and won a conviction against her husband, Michael Rodriguez.

Sedita said when the Epps case came through his office in 2009, he felt the evidence wasn’t there to support a murder case and pointed out that the U.S. Attorney’s Office took another five years to put its case together.

He said that in the Rodriguez homicide, he already had met with the state Attorney General’s Office about taking over the case when a key witness finally came forward and made a successful prosecution possible.

“The common denominator is that the evidence was different when we had the cases,” Sedita said.

Sedita also has been criticized for his failure to prosecute alleged election law violations. In 2009, he fired Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha for his public criticism.

And in 2013, a grand jury declined to indict Gabriele P. Ballowe, the driver suspected in the hit-and-run death of Barry T. Moss. Sedita expressed misgivings about the evidence, but last month, Ballowe and her insurers agreed to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Moss’ family.

The district attorney makes no apologies, saying he is a stickler for applying the law rather than emotion to each case.

“Our job is not to rubber-stamp arrests; if it was, we would be a police state,” he said.