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Panepinto’s messy abdication

The first sign that something was up with Sen. Marc Panepinto began to surface a few days ago from, of all places, Erie County Democratic Headquarters.

Local politics had been reeling for a week after the Assembly Ethics and Guidance Committee found freshman Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak (a Conservative who caucuses with the GOP) had exhibited “incredibly poor judgment” by having an affair with a male staffer.

The usual suspects said they were “shocked, saddened and appalled.”

Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner weighed in, too, but with his own curious take.

“No candidate or incumbent will receive or retain the endorsement of the Erie County Democratic Committee if he or she is sanctioned or otherwise admonished for violating their governing code of ethics,” he said. “We will withhold, and if necessary withdraw, our party’s support under any such circumstances.”

Events continued to unfold. State records indicated four Panepinto staffers left his Senate payroll since the end of December, including Danny Corum, a former New York City teachers union employee who worked on the senator’s 2014 campaign.

As problems in Panepinto Land mounted, the senator convened one of the most bizarre press conferences in local political history. Leaving behind his Albany colleagues finalizing this year’s state budget, Panepinto announced he would not seek a second term after less than 15 months in office.

“I’m a straight shooter,” he said to more than a dozen reporters and his family gathered behind him – including his wife, State Supreme Court Justice Catherine Nugent Panepinto.

The straight shooter then offered anything but straight answers to the four questions his handlers deigned permissible. He talked about the health problems of his law partner, Frank Dolce, who also joined the event. He mentioned his responsibility to the law firm housed in a Delaware Avenue mansion – obviously doing pretty well.

And in a roundabout way, Panepinto said his family obligations forced him to choose between his private and public careers. His answer didn’t exactly qualify him for the Straight Shooter Award, but proved refreshing enough in its acknowledgement that he at least had made the choice.

But before anyone could ask why he failed to recognize the inherent conflicts of public and private life before running for office, he was hustled off to the inner recesses of Dolce Panepinto, Attorneys at Law.

Straight answers surfaced only on Thursday, when The Buffalo News reported the senator’s office is the subject of an initial inquiry by the state’s chief ethics agency. Panepinto insists that no formal probe is underway, though the Joint Commission on Public Ethics routinely examines complaints before deciding whether to launch a full-scale investigation.

The senator was correct in one respect of his press conference answers – all of this will play out. Indeed, nobody has accused him of any wrongdoing.

But Zellner’s warning of a few days ago brings the whole 60th District saga full circle. In 2014, the chairman gushed over the candidacy of Hamburg Trustee Laura Hackathorn. She was excited, too. But Zellner retreated in favor of Panepinto, who barged onto the Senate scene backed by the power of the New York State United Teachers union.

It spent $1.1 million on the 2014 campaign. Nobody in Zellner’s world could match that.

And as the Politics Column pointed out two weeks ago, Panepinto’s endorsement was guaranteed when NYSUT said earlier this year he was once again the union’s man. In a “hold your nose” vote, Panepinto gained the party nod despite his rocky relations with Headquarters.

“Now we have to go forward and endorse somebody else,” Zellner said a few days ago.

Lots of applicants are coming forward. But it will prove an interesting scenario this time around.

Will the choice stem from Zellner and the Erie County Democrats?

Or Albany and New York State United Teachers?