Mark A. Sacha acknowledges his underdog label in the race for Erie County district attorney.
Facing two opponents in the Democratic primary next Tuesday, Sacha counts little money in his campaign treasury. He cannot afford television advertising. He has gained few endorsements and no minor-party backing.
But the former assistant district attorney is still expected to seriously compete as he faces two better financed opponents – acting DA Michael J. Flaherty Jr. and John J. Flynn Jr. That is because, over the last several years, Sacha has emerged as a voice for reform in Erie County and New York State. He also launches his first bid for public office just as government ethics looms as a major issue for voters.
In addition, the election arrives just as Sacha’s complaints led directly to this summer’s indictment of a major political figure and a State Supreme Court justice. He calls himself “the right candidate at the right time.”
“I initiated it. I pushed for it, I complained to the Moreland Commission. I wrote letters,” he said of the complaints to a state ethics panel and other outcries leading to the indictments. “I pushed for it as much as possible not because I expected to run for office, but because it was the right thing to do.”
In a year when outsiders such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have scored major success on the national level, Sacha hopes the reformer reputation he has carved out over the last few years will resonate, too.
“It’s the right thing to do because the District Attorney’s Office has been damaged severely by politics and people who let politics come ahead of the law,” he said in summarizing his candidacy.
Sacha, 58, the son of a Polish immigrant father and Irish-American mother, grew up in Cheektowaga and went on to play basketball for the University at Buffalo under coach Bill Hughes. After graduating from law school at UB, he earned a reputation over more than 22 years as a top prosecutor and administrator in the Erie County District Attorney’s Office. He headed various bureaus – including grand jury – before rising to the third-highest post in the office under then-DA Frank J. Clark.
But everything changed for Sacha in 2009, when his reputation suddenly extended far beyond legal circles. He told The Buffalo News then that two successive district attorneys – Clark and Frank A. Sedita III – looked the other way on a string of election law violations he alleges were committed by longtime Buffalo political operative G. Steven Pigeon. Sedita promptly fired Sacha, forcing him to begin a new career as a defense attorney.
Since then, Sacha has assumed a far different role than he might have imagined before 2009. Some call him a rabble-rouser or even a gadfly. Others dismiss him as a scorned former assistant district attorney seeking to prove he was wrongly terminated.
But there is no question that Sacha embraces the reformer role as he constantly complains about official unwillingness to ensure electoral integrity or investigate corruption because of politics.
“People whom I respected – including DA Frank Clark and DA Frank Sedita – compromised their elected positions and oaths of office in order to benefit their political ambitions,” Sacha said. “That’s when I became concerned to the degree that I was willing to stand up.”
Clark and Sedita have always denied Sacha’s accusations, with Sedita contending that the former assistant responded with his Pigeon story after being demoted. And Sedita – now a State Supreme Court justice – also contends that he was vindicated when a federal court dismissed Sacha’s wrongful-termination lawsuit.
Indeed, Sacha never seemed to gain traction in his reform efforts over the years. Then-Gov. David A. Paterson, for example, in 2010 denied Sacha’s request to appoint a special prosecutor in Erie County. But the governor’s counsel – Peter J. Kiernan – nevertheless pronounced a “pattern” of election law violations in Erie County, including money laundering.
But in 2013, after he filed an obscure complaint with then-County Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant and former Legislator Timothy R. Hogues about Pigeon’s campaign activities, an investigation and charges ensued.
Now, Sacha claims his own vindication.
It all began when the Erie County and the New York State boards of elections ruled that his complaint about an independent political committee with close ties to Pigeon, the WNY Progressive Caucus, merited investigation for possible election law violations. Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman inherited the case.
Then, on June 30, after more than 18 months of investigation, a special grand jury empaneled by Schneiderman returned a nine-count indictment against Pigeon that also resulted in charges against and the resignation of State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek. Although Sacha’s complaints of election law violations remain unanswered, his original action set in motion the eventual Pigeon and Michalek indictments.
But even now, he remains unsatisfied.
“I feel we’re heading in the right direction, and I’m happy the Attorney General’s Office has taken action,” he said before alluding to the fact that the lead prosecutor handling the case was once Michalek’s campaign treasurer. “But my experience and analysis of all these delays, and the fact that they continue to allow a horribly conflicted attorney general to lead the investigation is of concern to me.”
Indeed, Sacha refuses to remain silent in a way he says also would mark his tenure if he is elected district attorney. Although Pigeon and Michalek were indicted on bribery-related charges as a result of his original complaint, he wonders why Schneiderman has not addressed alleged election law violations.
“Voters in Erie County have a right to know the truth … now, not after another election cycle,” he said. “Attorney General Schneiderman did not cause this problem, but it is his job to end it. If elected district attorney, I will never allow public corruption investigations to languish without resolution.”
Still, Sacha must defend himself against accusations that he lacks the “temperament” to handle the job. He does not apologize for the passion for reform and ethical politics that cost him his early career in the DA’s Office.
“I was a demanding supervisor, but fair,” he said. “I expected my assistants to work, but I was not political in the way I supervised. My manner is direct, but I am not a schemer.”
Sacha acknowledges that he sought the Democratic endorsement eventually won by Flynn, but seems to relish his outsider status. He said he never even considered running for district attorney until early this year when Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk abruptly ended his anticipated candidacy.
He has also attracted fellow outsiders, including supporters of Sanders, the Vermont senator who launched a fierce challenge to Hillary Clinton this spring and who almost carried Erie County in the April presidential primary.
“It’s kind of like what we saw in Bernie – a willingness to speak truth to power,” said Brian Nowak, leader of the local Sanders effort now working on the Sacha campaign. “I saw that in Mark.”
Nowak has helped mobilize former Sanders supporters in what he calls a significant “ground operation” for Sacha.
Like Flynn, Sacha now takes aim at Flaherty’s record. He has also unsuccessfully demanded Flaherty’s answers about any role he played in seeking reversal of the grand jury indictment returned against bar owner Gabriele P. Ballowe in the 2013 hit-and-run death of Evans handyman Barry T. Moss.
Flynn and Sacha both accuse Flaherty of seeking the reversal out of Sedita’s fear of losing the case at trial. Flaherty has refused to discuss the matter.
Now, Sacha says he will also prove a better administrator than Flaherty or Sedita. He says the office sought 60 percent more funding from the county in 2015 than it did in 2009, even though it handled about half as many cases. He labels an “outrage” the low rate of solved homicide cases in Erie County, and pronounces himself the “most qualified by far” of all the candidates to head an office where he worked for more than 22 years.