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District Attorney Frank J. Clark Friday promised a probe into reports of illegal political fund raising within the Erie County Sheriff's Department.

Clark said he is not sure if his scrutiny of alleged sales of fund-raising tickets by sheriff's deputies and command officers will result in criminal charges. But at the least, he said, the probe will highlight the illegality of the practice.

Clark reacted to reports of sheriff's personnel selling tickets to fund-raisers for Democratic sheriff candidate Rocco J. Diina in apparent violation of election law that prohibits police officers from soliciting political contributions. Several department employees have complained about being intimidated into purchasing tickets, especially those offered by command officers.

Undersheriff Gerald H. Mack acknowledged last week he ran a Sept. 4 affair for Diina but said he was unaware of any prohibitions on such activity.

And while Sheriff Thomas Higgins issued directives against political activity on county time or property, he too said he was not aware of state Board of Elections rulings against political solicitations by police and deputies.

Clark agreed Friday that "99.9 percent" of such violations occur without knowledge of restrictions in state laws. But he said that does not detract from the coercion factor that can accompany ticket sales by superiors -- especially police officers.

Clark also emphasized that ignorance of the law is no excuse.

"There is no question it is occurring to some extent," he said. "And I'm not going to sit by and watch it occur year after year because someone says he doesn't know about the law."

Several deputies have contacted The Buffalo News in recent days to express concern over Higgins' plan to conduct an internal investigation. They complained that some conducting the probe may have also been involved in soliciting contributions themselves.

Several Democrats have accused supporters of Republican candidate Patrick Gallivan within the Sheriff's Department of political solicitations. Gallivan said that is not true, that a group called "Deputies for Gallivan" is run by a retired deputy and others outside the department who have organized an Oct. 23 event.

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