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Dirty politics in Erie County

At almost 58, Debra Liegl entered the political arena for the first time this fall as the Democratic challenger to Republican incumbent Ted Morton in the County Legislature’s Eighth District.

Her candidacy made sense. She was well-known in the community as head of the Cheektowaga Chamber of Commerce, Morton seemed vulnerable and Liegl was running for what she called “all the right reasons.”

But Morton cruised to victory on Nov. 3 following one of the most bitter campaigns in recent memory, and the bet here is that Liegl will think long and hard before running for office ever again. She learned firsthand about “opposition research,” and how the appearance of her name in a decade-old legal document fueled a slew of nasty campaign mailers that she still considers a cheap shot.

“You know going into this that you’re going to have to take a punch,” she said a few days ago. “That’s OK if you deserve a punch. But these were out-and-out lies.”

Voters in Cheektowaga, Lancaster and Alden will recall the ominous mailers they received back in October. They show Liegl’s photo accompanied by glaring red letters charging “bankruptcy fraud.”

According to an Oct. 30 “truth check” article by Sandra Tan of The Buffalo News, none of the Erie County Republican Committee’s charges of “cheating the system” and “concocting a scam” were true. They surrounded the 2005 claims of a bankruptcy trustee in a case involving Liegl’s sister, stemming from the ownership transfer of her mother’s home to her six children in 1992. Later, one sister filed for bankruptcy while continuing to live in the house with her mother.

The bankruptcy trustee, however, contended that other siblings like Liegl should have contributed more toward upkeep of the home and demanded they help pay off her sister’s creditors. A bankruptcy judge later approved a settlement, though the agreement never states Liegl was required to repay any money.

“I was at doors talking to people,” Liegl says now. “I was telling them, ‘I would not be here talking to you if any of that were true.’ ”

Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy, however, says it was true. He points to the bankruptcy trustee’s claims of a “fraudulent transfer” and “intent to hinder, defraud or delay creditors of the debtor.”

“I absolutely believe it was fair,” Langworthy said of his flyers, “because she was accused of bankruptcy fraud; accused by the creditors of shielding and hiding assets. The word ‘fraud’ was used in the court documents.”

The chairman says Liegl waged her own “dirty campaign” against Morton, a financial planner. Her literature highlighted claims against him of falsifying records, hiding money and committing a crime. The News examination of those negative allegations called them “exaggerations in several instances, but not wholly false.”

The point of all this is not to adjudicate a bankruptcy case in the Politics Column. But we will point out – maybe as a warning to those contemplating elective office “for all the right reasons” – just how exposed they might become.

Langworthy, “all in” for a pivotal race that determined continued GOP control of the County Legislature, says as much.

“Someone contemplating running for public office needs to do their own internal investigation first,” he said. “This stuff was in black and white. Candidates, especially if they launch their own negative campaign, should be mindful of their own background.”

Could very well be, though a debate continues whether the GOP campaign was based on red meat or thin soup. What becomes abundantly clear, however, is that anything goes in politics – especially if you get dragged into your sister’s bankruptcy case.

After a paltry 24 percent turned out for this year’s countywide election, Liegl asks if that brand of politics contributes to the problem. And she acknowledges she would think twice about running again. Who, after all, would expose oneself to such campaign tactics?

“It was my introduction course,” she said, “to Erie County Politics 101.”