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Acting DA recommends overhauling Erie County ethics law

Acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty on Monday proposed sweeping legal changes to Erie County’s ethics law to make it easier to hold county officials accountable for ethical violations.

Matters investigated by the county’s Board of Ethics are often referred to the District Attorney’s Office, but the ethics law now on the county books lacks the teeth and explicit language necessary to effectively prosecute violators, Flaherty said.

He said he hopes the County Legislature will take up the matter “so that I have the ability to act upon those officials who betray the public trust.”

Board of Ethics Chairman Steven Schwartz previously told The Buffalo News that while a number of matters have been referred to the District Attorney’s Office over the years, none led to charges from a prosecutor.

Flaherty’s recommendations include:

• Prohibiting county leaders from hiring the relatives of political party officials, which would make “friends and family” patronage hires in Erie County illegal.

• Forbidding the legislative or executive appointment of a political party official to any county agency, board or government authority.

“You should not be appointed to a position in government because you have political control over a municipality and serve as the county chairman,” Flaherty stated in his proposal summary. “The hiring process should be open to all citizens.”

• Requiring the immediate firing of any county officials convicted of a crime. Currently, there is no process to deal with an elected or appointed officials convicted of violating the law.

• Limiting contributions from an entity or individual to $5,000 to candidates for a countywide office, and $500 for a County Legislature seat, and closing loopholes for limited liability corporations that can now ignore contribution limits.

• Increasing penalties for financial disclosure form violations by candidates. Any person who knowingly fails to file a financial disclosure form would be guilty of a misdemeanor.

• Prohibiting Board of Elections employees from circulating petitions for candidates to elected office. Among the changes, those doing so would be guilty of a misdemeanor.

“This is clearly a conflict of interest,” Flaherty stated. “The same people who collect petitions for one candidate review the opponent’s petitions to determine whether the opponent appears on the ballot.”

He described the Erie County Legislature as “progressive” and interested in transparency, so he is optimistic lawmakers will seriously consider passing his recommendations. Flaherty, who sent his proposal to legislators on Friday, said he plans to follow up with them this week.

“These are basic, common-sense proposals designed to restore people’s trust in our government,” he said.

Schwartz said he received a copy of Flaherty’s proposal, but hasn’t yet had the chance to review it. He will meet with Flaherty on Wednesday and plans to invite him to discuss the proposal with the board at a coming meeting.

Flaherty declined to say which Board of Ethics case prompted him to review the county’s existing ethics laws. The one that has come to his office during his short time as acting district attorney involves Republican County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, who asked county-connected businessmen to pay nearly $12,000 in tuition so he could attend a Harvard University business program in 2014. The Ethics Board ruled on that matter this past December.

Flaherty is seeking the endorsement of the Erie County Democratic Party in his bid to win election to the district attorney position outright. He was scheduled to meet with the party’s executive committee Monday evening.

email: stan@buffnews.com