The acting Erie County district attorney crossed party lines Wednesday to endorse the Republican candidate in the district attorney's race, Joseph V. Treanor III. In doing so, Michael J. Flaherty Jr. took a healthy slap at the Democratic Party leadership that fought him in the first stage of the campaign.
Treanor can't be bought, said Flaherty, a Democrat who lost the Democratic Party primary and will leave office Dec. 31 because he holds no other party lines.
He went on to say at a morning news conference outside Old County Hall that Treanor would not be compromised by "a political machine intent on dismantling the District Attorney's Office." When asked to elaborate, Flaherty did not specify how the office would be dismantled but said the Democratic candidate in the race, John J. Flynn Jr. of the Town of Tonawanda, presents a risk to its continued operation if elected.
The county's Democratic headquarters backed Flynn, not Flaherty, during the bruising primary campaign. Flaherty was accused of cozying up to a rebel party wing that includes the indicted operative G. Steven Pigeon, who faces charges he bribed a State Supreme Court justice. Opponents also cast Flaherty as a remake of Frank A. Sedita III, a district attorney first elected with Pigeon's help and later criticized as being timid with tough cases. Sedita left the office to Flaherty when he became a Supreme Court judge at the start of the year.
In short, it would be no surprise that there might be hard feelings.
"He asked for our endorsement," Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner said of Flaherty. "Once he didn't get that, he went in the other direction, and we were a bunch of 'party bosses' and stuff like that. This is sour grapes on Michael Flaherty's part for being rejected by Democratic Party voters in the primary."
A Democrat endorsing a Republican candidate goes against the grain, but it's not unheard of. Flaherty at one time considered teaming with the Republicans. Early in the race, he was in talks to accept the GOP cross-endorsement. With the GOP's backing, Flaherty might leverage the Conservative Party endorsement as well. But the Conservatives first went to Flynn, and the potential for a Republican partnership drifted away, said a person close to the discussions.
The Republicans went with Treanor, a retired Air Force lawyer. He is an enrolled Conservative who wrestled the Conservative line away from Flynn in that party's primary. Treanor on Wednesday thanked Flaherty for the endorsement and again rebuffed Flynn's charge that his experience with military courts leaves him unprepared to serve as the top prosecutor in upstate New York's most populous county. Treanor further stressed that he will not be influenced by political forces, because he refuses to accept campaign donations.
Treanor and Flaherty are University of Notre Dame graduates who have seen each other at alumni gatherings but did not know each other well, Treanor said. But they scheduled a meeting, after Primary Day, because Flaherty wanted to know more about Treanor as a candidate, Treanor added, when asked how the endorsement came together. Their meeting was followed up by discussions, with people in the Treanor campaign, who he would not identify. The second state of talks led to the endorsement, he said.
Soon after Flaherty took sides Wednesday, the Flynn camp accused him of a "disturbing breach of the prosecutorial code of conduct." The District Attorneys Association of New York in 2015 completed a set of guidelines that urges district attorneys not to endorse in political races. Sedita was the association president, and Flaherty helped draft the standards.
"John Flynn has run a positive campaign talking about his civilian and military experience," the Flynn campaign said in a written statement. "Erie County voters aren’t looking for sour grapes and back-room deals, they’re looking for honest leadership. Michael Flaherty's unethical behavior is precisely what voters rejected in the September primary, and they will reject it again along with Joe Treanor in next week's general election."
But the Republican camp rushed to Flaherty's defense by saying the acting district attorney had gone to the District Attorney's Association before endorsing Treanor and was given a 1983 opinion from the State Bar Association's Committee on Professional Ethics: "Where there is no appearance of impropriety," it says, "there is no reason why the electorate should not have the retiring district attorney's views as to which candidate is better or best qualified to succeed to the office."