Illegal sales of fund-raising tickets for the sheriff's race appear to be rampant in the Erie County Sheriff's Department, several sources confirmed Thursday.
Deputies, lieutenants, captains and even the undersheriff have sought contributions, according to the sources, even though state election law makes political fund raising by police officers illegal, a misdemeanor.
In addition, the practice is causing some trepidation among those who say they feel pressured.
"You've got lieutenants and other people using their position to force ticket sales on people," said one deputy, who asked not to be identified. "It goes on daily."
In fact, several sheriff's deputies have complained to The Buffalo News about ticket solicitations to fund-raisers for Democratic candidate Rocco J. Diina. They said the sales pitches occurred despite state Board of Elections rules allowing police officers to contribute -- but not solicit -- political funds.
"I got tickets in the mail from Jerry Mack," said another deputy, referring to the undersheriff. "While I have to say I didn't feel pressured, I know others did. But I thought it was insulting to get something like that from the second in command. I thought it was out of place."
Just about everybody involved in the Sheriff's Department, including Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins, said they were unaware of the election law prohibition on officers seeking political contributions.
Mack acknowledged that he was host of a $75-per-ticket affair for Diina Sept. 4 in the Radisson Hotel in Cheektowaga and that he authorized letters over his name to be mailed to a "general list."
But he said such activity has been routine during his 30 years in the Sheriff's Department and he was unaware of any prohibitions.
"This is the first I heard of it being a problem," he said. "Cops have run parties for years."
Mack said he did not handle any of the money collected for Diina, did not take note of who showed up at the party and ordered that there be no solicitations of anyone on county time or on county property.
He also said he would not allow the soliciting letter to identify him as undersheriff. But he said others in the Sheriff's Department also have been running parties -- for both Diina and Republican candidate Patrick Gallivan.
"I know of several captains and chiefs who have run parties for both -- as well as Burkhardt," he said, referring to Charles E. Burkhardt, the Right to Life candidate.
"But I had better start talking to some chiefs. We don't want any crimes committed here," he added, referring to the misdemeanor under the election law.
Higgins, a Democrat who is not seeking re-election and a Diina supporter, emphasized that he issued a directive early in the campaign warning Sheriff's Department personnel about conducting political activity on county time or property. But he said he always believed that police officers could engage in such activity on their own time.
"If you're off duty, I don't think there's anything wrong with that," Higgins said. "Since 1821, sheriffs have run for office in Erie County. I'm sure deputies sold tickets for Grover Cleveland when he was sheriff and all the sheriffs since."
He also acknowledged that deputies had raised funds for his elections, which he deemed permissible during off hours.
But Lee Daghlian, spokesman for the state Board of Elections, said a 1983 board ruling indicated that police officers, including Sheriff's Department personnel outside New York City, are guilty of a misdemeanor if convicted of such activity.
Gallivan denied that any deputies are holding fund-raising functions for him. He added that during his 14 years in the State Police, he believed troopers were conscious of the election law prohibition against officers' involvement in campaign fund raising.
Gallivan accused Diina of condoning officers' fund-raising efforts for his campaign.
"I'm disturbed that the No. 2 ranking officer in the department (Mack) is openly violating the election law by apparently using his position to solicit funds for Rocco Diina," he said. "That's something that shouldn't exist in a law enforcement agency, and I certainly won't allow it to exist in my administration."
The Republican later produced what he said was a copy of Diina's Internet home page listing several fund-raising parties, including a June 19 gathering asking potential contributors to contact Assistant Chief John Abraham at his Sheriff's Department telephone to inquire about $25 tickets.
Gallivan said the Erie County district attorney has an obligation to examine the situation.
"If the law has been violated, then the people violating the law must certainly be held accountable," he said.
Diina, meanwhile, has acknowledged the election law throughout his campaign while emphasizing his efforts to avoid direct involvement in campaign fund raising.
"I've been well aware of that law for years and have always conformed to it," he said, adding he was aware only of the undersheriff's participation in the Sept. 4 event, not his sponsorship.
"I don't participate in the fund-raising meetings, organization or solicitation," said Diina, a deputy Buffalo police commissioner.
He repeated a charge that Gallivan engaged in direct solicitation of campaign funds before resigning as a captain in the State Police to run for sheriff.
"While acting as a state policeman, he asked people for financial contributions," Diina said. "I know specifically that he asked people for financial support who are supporters of mine."
He declined to name sources.
Gallivan branded the charge "a lie."
"I never solicited money, nor did I have any discussions about raising money before resigning from the state police," he said.