Mohamed T. Albanna is running for a seat on the Lackawanna City Council and he has a resume he can boast to voters about: Successful businessman, former school board member, and board member of several nonprofits that help immigrants.
But he's also got a criminal record.
Albanna was sent to prison after he and two family members were convicted 11 years ago for illegally sending $5.5 million to Yemen.
Albanna, who emigrated from Yemen 48 years ago, served five years in federal prison and was on probation for another three. He was prosecuted under the Patriot Act during an era in which the Justice Department aggresively investigated numerous American Muslims after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Prosecutors found no evidence that Albanna was funding terrorist activities, then-U.S. Attorney Terrance P. Flynn said in 2006. But he said there was no way of knowing if he did because Albanna did not keep accurate records.
"Almost everyone in Lackawanna knows the case I was involved with and they know I pled to a plea deal," Albanna said. "I wasn't happy with it. I pled guilty to one charge which was conducting a business without a license. I was the one who ended up losing my money and my time for doing something good for the community. Individuals from throughout Western New York were sending money to their families. We were working through an exchange in Yemen. The money was for parents and brothers and sisters, wives and children to live on monthly."
Albanna said he didn't think the conviction should scare away voters.
"It should not matter now, because it does not affect the residents of Lackawanna or my commitment to them," said Albanna, a 66-year-old father of nine. "People who know me know that I am a concerned parent and citizen and active in the City of Lackawanna."
If Albanna is elected as a Lackawanna councilman, it remains unclear whether he will be allowed to take office.
Under the state civil rights law, a person holding public office who is convicted of a felony and sentenced to state prison forfeits his or her right to hold public office until his or her sentence is completed.
But there is no law barring a convicted felon from running for public office, said John W. Conklin, spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections.
"Under New York State Public Officer Law, if you had a felony conviction, you can run for public office, but your opponent is free to make it an issue, and the electorate is free to choose based on the give and take of a political debate – unless the city has a charter with additional restrictions," Conklin said.
Lackawanna's city charter says: "A person convicted of a crime or offense involving moral turpitude shall be ineligible to assume or continue in any City office, position or employment. Upon conviction, such person shall automatically forfeit such office, position or employment."
City Attorney Antonio Savaglio declined to comment on how that provision might affect Albanna's candidacy.
Albanna said he thinks he needs to obtain a certificate of relief from disabilities so that he can hold public office. A judge or the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision may grant a certificate that allows convicted felons to regain some rights or seek employment that they may be barred from because of their conviction. Albanna said he has applied for the certificate.
"Now before I can serve on any board, I will need a certificate of relief for disabilities," Albanna said. "That will restore my rights. I have applied to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision for a certificate. I'm sure it will be forthcoming."
"It tells the world you have been rehabilitated," said attorney FritzGerald Tondreau, who submitted the application for Albanna. "There should be no legal bars from serving any type of public agency or private employer."
Ralph M. Mohr, Republican commissioner of the Erie County Board of Elections, said he could recall no other candidate running for public office in Erie County who had been convicted of a felony.
But this year, Albanna is not the only candidate with that distinction in Western New York.
In Buffalo, the Green Party's mayoral candidate, Terrence A. Robinson, is a former Buffalo police officer who was convicted of manslaughter in the shooting death of a 20-year-old in an off-duty incident in 1989. He served a 10-year prison sentence.
While Robinson's chances of winning Buffalo's mayoral race are slim, Albanna has a good shot of being elected in Lackawanna's 1st Ward.
Albanna is running for office in the 1st Ward, Lackawanna's poorest ward and one where Democrats have a strong advantage in voter enrollment. The 1st Ward has 2,815 registered voters, of which 78 percent, or 2,190, are enrolled Democrats. There are only 156 enrolled Republicans in the ward.
Another Democrat, John E. Ingram, plans to challenge Albanna in a primary election. But Ingram said he's not going to make Albanna's felony conviction a campaign issue.
"I'm not going to dwell on his felony conviction," said Ingram. "The voters should make the decision. They should look at both of us and vote for the best candidate."
Albanna received the endorsement of the Lackawanna Democratic Committee. The Erie County Conservative Party, in a rare move, endorsed both Albanna and Ingram.
"This was a tough choice. Information (on the felony conviction) was troublesome," said Ralph C. Lorigo, the county Conservative Party chairman. "Some people thought the felony should have eliminated him. Some felt he paid his time and should be given a second chance. After substantial debate, we decided to open the line and put both on the ballot in the September primary. In many states you are barred from public office during incarceration, while you are on probation, and for another two years after that. In New York there is no bar. We decided to leave it to the voters."
Albanna has the support of the current 1st Ward Councilman Abdulsalam K. Noman. Noman, who cannot run for re-election because of Lackawanna's term limits, called Albanna his role model.
"He's an astute businessman, homeowner and a dedicated volunteer," Noman said. "He is my role model. I understand he went to jail, but it was because he lacked the proper license to transmit money to Yemen."
Albanna owns and operates AB&S (Albanna Bros. & Sons) Wholesale on Clinton Street in Buffalo. The business formerly known as Queen City Cigarettes & Candy sells cigarettes, snacks and other items to at least 100 mom-and-pop shops throughout the area.
Albanna is a founding director at Global Concept Charter School, chairman of the board for Access of WNY, a nonprofit service organization for immigrants, and he served as president of the Yemenite Benevolent Association and the Arab American Businessmen's Association of WNY.
Ingram,60, who is currently on disability, is active in Lackawanna organizations, including the First Ward Brownfield Opportunity Area, the Lackawanna Public Library board of trustees and the Lackawanna Municipal Housing Authority board of directors. He is president of Glover Gardens Tenant Council and a board member of the Erie County Community Action Organization.
Both Albanna and Ingram are eager to begin collecting voters' signatures on nominating petitions, a process that begins Tuesday. The candidates must file their petitions by July 13.
Albanna is allowed to vote in the election despite his criminal record. People convicted of state or federal felonies lose their right to vote in New York until their maximum prison sentence expires, they are discharged from parole, or they are pardoned by the president or New York's governor.
"He voted rather consistently until his arrest in 2006," Mohr said. "He began to vote again in 2011, and has voted consistently since then."