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After donating $73,000 to his campaign, acting DA’s staff is asked for more

The men and women who work for acting Erie County District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. so far have donated more than $73,000 to his election campaign, according to public records examined by The Buffalo News.

And now, the employees are being asked to donate more – $250, $500 or $1,000 – at a coming fundraiser in Buffalo’s Saturn Club.

The New York State Bar Association says there is nothing in state law that prevents employees from donating money to the DA they work for. But others – including one candidate locked in a primary campaign battle against Flaherty – say the practice of soliciting donations from employees raises serious ethical questions.

Some of Flaherty’s assistants have donated to their boss’s campaign on two or three occasions, according to state campaign records. At least 19 employees have donated at least $1,000 each to the campaign, and one of Flaherty’s top aides has given $3,600.

One of Flaherty’s employees complained to The News that he or she has already donated more than once to Flaherty’s campaign, and was upset to receive a recent invitation to buy tickets for $250, $500 or $1,000 to an Aug. 23 fundraiser for Flaherty at the Saturn Club.

And two employees said that earlier this year Flaherty emphasized to his staff that because he had hired most of them, he expected loyalty – a strong implication that campaign donations are expected.

Officials of Flaherty’s campaign staff strongly denied that Flaherty made any statement to imply workers are under pressure to donate.

James J. Eagan, finance chairman for the Flaherty campaign, said the county’s Democratic Party leaders, who support John Flynn for district attorney, are engaging in a “hypocritical attack.”

While criticizing Flaherty, Democratic Party leaders are well aware that County Executive Mark Poloncarz and other Democrats get major portions of their campaign funds from government employees, Eagan said. Some county employees gave as much as $10,000 to Poloncarz during his last election campaign, Eagan noted.

“This is yet another hypocritical attack from a county organization led by a county executive who gets over half of his campaign contributions from Erie County employees,” Eagan said. “If the Erie County Democratic Committee and Poloncarz are ready to support a law banning all county employees from donating to county political campaigns, Michael will support that 110 percent. Until then, staff in the District Attorney’s office have the right to support any candidate they choose.”

Christopher J. Belling, a top prosecutor who has worked for the office since the 1970s, said he has received “no pressure” from Flaherty or anyone acting on his behalf to donate money.

“I give to the campaign because I feel Mike Flaherty is the best candidate in the race. It’s that simple and straightforward,” said Belling, who has given $3,600 to the Flaherty campaign and plans to attend the upcoming Saturn Club fundraiser. “I’d go so far as to say there has been no pressure at all” for donations.

Belling, who makes $121,740 a year according to county salary records, said he made his own decision to donate money to Flaherty’s campaign. He currently serves as the office’s chief trial counsel, one of the top appointed positions under Flaherty.

Critics of the practice say it is wrong for the county’s top criminal prosecutor to seek and accept cash donations from the people who work under the DA. They say this practice can lead to employees being hired, promoted or demoted based on how much money they give to the boss’s campaign.

“If and when I am elected, I will bring my staff together and tell them I will not accept their donations. If they send me checks, I’ll send them back to them,” said Flynn, an attorney and former judge who is running against Flaherty in the Democratic Party primary Sept. 13.

“To send these people fundraising tickets is a form of harassment, because many of these people serve entirely at the beckoning of the DA,” he said. “Your career in the DA’s office should be based on your performance – not on how much money you give the boss.”

The fact that Flaherty has proposed tougher ethical standards for county officeholders should make him more sensitive to the issue, Flynn said.

Mark A. Sacha, who is also running in the Democratic primary for DA, has a more nuanced position on staff donating to the district attorney’s campaign fund.

“My position on it is that, if elected, I would not prevent employees from giving, but I would take a position that I would not solicit any employee of the office,” he said.

Sacha also said he has “received calls from several assistant district attorneys who are complaining about being coerced into making contributions.”

Flaherty’s campaign filings show that he has raised more than $350,000 since beginning his campaign last year. That number includes $140,000 in loans that came from members of Flaherty’s family and Eagan.

So the donations from DA office employees make up a little over a third of the $210,000 that was raised by Flaherty without benefit of loans.

Campaign donations from staff have come up in previous elections for Erie County district attorney.

In 2013, Frank A. Sedita III was criticized after his campaign leaders called assistant DAs to a Sunday morning meeting at a West Side restaurant, where supervisors invited them to donate $500 to $1,000 to Sedita’s re-election campaign.

The DA’s office has 170 employees, according to the county personnel department. Ninety-two of those employees, mostly assistant DAs and investigators, serve completely at the pleasure of the elected DA and have no Civil Service protection.

Supporters of staff donations say that, if a district attorney cannot accept donations from employees, the officeholder will wind up financing his or her campaign almost entirely with donations from lawyers, most of them defense lawyers who regularly face the DA’s office in court.

“It is a quandary, a difficult question that every DA has to face,” said Frank J. Clark, who served as Erie County’s district attorney for 12 years before retiring at the end of 2008. “I’ve known some DAs who have said they will not take any donations from their employees. I’ve known others who say the only people they will accept money from is their assistants. It comes down to this: You either take donations from your assistants, or you have to get almost all your money from the defense counsel.”

Clark is well aware of the issue. In October 1996, The News reported that he had received $52,266 in campaign donations from employees. At the time, Clark was the top assistant in the office and was running to succeed his boss, the late Kevin Dillon, who was about to become a judge.

While insisting he never put heavy pressure on any of his employees to donate, Clark said he did ask them to “support the team,” and also said he was well aware of how much his employees were giving to his campaign.

“I had some assistants who never donated a penny to me. I never fired or demoted anyone for not giving donations,” Clark said. “At the same time, I knew who was contributing and who wasn’t. It’s human nature to want to know that.”

Flaherty is the former top assistant to Sedita, who became a state judge this year after receiving a cross-endorsement from Democratic and Republican party leaders. Flaherty declared his candidacy in late September of last year.

Clark, the retired DA, said the top supervisors are the people who have the most to lose if a new DA comes in.

“The people who are truly at risk are the top five people or so,” Clark said. “If you like the job you have, and you like the DA you are working for, you’d almost be crazy not to donate.”

The State Bar Association has issued several advisory opinions on the issue of DAs taking campaign money from subordinates. It is an issue of concern, the bar association said, because prosecutors have “enormous power and enormous discretion” on how criminal cases will be handled.

While the bar association recognizes the right of assistant DAs to make political donations, the association said “it is improper” for an assistant DA to “participate actively” in his or her boss’s campaign.

Joseph V. Treanor III, the Republican Party’s candidate for DA, said that he – like Flynn – would refuse to take donations from DA office employees because the practice leaves “a coercive impression.”

But as long as DA candidates have to raise large amounts of money to run for office, the controversy will probably continue, Clark said.

“Whether you’re Hillary Clinton or Michael Flaherty, if you’re running, you have to raise money,” he said.

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com; lmichel@buffnews.com

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