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DA candidate returns $500 campaign donation from defense lawyer

Acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. so far has collected more campaign money than any other candidate in the race to become Erie County’s top prosecutor.

Interestingly, there was one contribution Flaherty didn’t want – $500 from defense lawyer Thomas J. Eoannou.

Eoannou in January became one of the many local lawyers to donate to the “Flaherty for DA” fund. But this month, just days after Eoannou filed a motion in a high-profile criminal case, the Flaherty team returned the $500 without explanation.

Eoannou surmises that his strategy in defending Gabriele Ballowe sparked the refund.

Ballowe faces four felony charges for allegedly striking handyman Barry T. Moss, 52, with her sport utility vehicle on the night of Dec. 22, 2013, and leaving him to die on the side of Route 5.

The case is one of the most remarkable in recent years because prosecutors under then-District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III asked a grand jury in 2014 to reverse its decision to indict Ballowe and instead place no charges against her.

Then just weeks ago, with Sedita sitting as a State Supreme Court justice and his second-in-command, Flaherty, running the DA’s office, prosecutors obtained an indictment based on the strength of new information.

Eoannou, who has represented Ballowe on matters related to the fatality, soon filed a motion to unseal transcripts and notes from that first grand jury. He signaled that he intended to defend Ballowe by putting the actions of prosecutors front and center and forcing them to explain their decisions.

The lawyer then received an envelope in the mail. His donation to Flaherty was returned.

Eoannou could only guess as to why. But he said that if it stems from his motion, he wants to stress that just about any defense lawyer in town would have done the same thing.

“We had to bring the motion, and we brought it,” he said.

After State Supreme Court Justice Christopher J. Burns heard arguments Thursday, Flaherty called the defense gambit a “distraction.” His prosecutors had already referred to it in court papers as “an attempt to turn this case into a political circus” to promote another candidate for district attorney.

While Eoannou had given Flaherty $500 in January, he gave rival candidate John Flynn more than $1,000 in recent months and helped organize a June fundraiser for him.

A Flaherty campaign spokeswoman indicated the refund had more to do with Eoannou’s support of Flynn than his strategy in the Ballowe case. She indicated the Flaherty team also didn’t like Eoannou’s statements about how his client Rus Thompson should not be facing a serious felony charge, pursued by Flaherty’s prosecutors, for allegedly continuing to vote in Grand Island after moving to Niagara Falls.

“The donor in question,” campaign spokeswoman Maggie McKeon said in response to a Buffalo News inquiry about Eoannou’s refund, “...wishes to support a candidate who supports his views, so his donation was refunded.”

The return of $500 does nothing to dent Flaherty’s command so far in raising money for the 2016 campaign for Erie County district attorney.

The Democrat’s campaign fund held $248,487 on July 15, a midyear date when the State Board of Elections asks candidates and political funds to reveal their income and expenses.

Flynn, who also hopes to win September’s Democratic primary and emerge as the party nominee, reported $151,622 on hand. But Flynn is endorsed by party headquarters, so the powerful gears of the party machine turn for him and no other.

Mark Sacha, the third Democrat in the race, said his account held $7,113.

Sitting district attorneys often turn to the prosecutors on their staff, who can be fired at any time, to help fill their campaign funds. Flaherty’s treasurer has cashed checks from several lawyers in the office.

But Flaherty’s treasurer also collected checks from law firms in and around Buffalo, as did the Flynn campaign.

Meanwhile, Flaherty injected $31,000 from his own pocket into his fund, the most of any candidate so far.

Flynn gave his fund nearly $2,600 by July 15.

Sacha, who had collected no money as yet from the county’s law firms, contributed $10,000 to his effort.

On the Republican side, Joseph V. Treanor III had raised no money from contributors by July 15 but loaned his campaign fund $3,000. He had $1,834 in his fund July 15, his report says.

email: mspina@buffnews.com

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