Niagara County Legislator Dennis F. Virtuoso, a Niagara Falls Democrat, has asked for an investigation of an outdated telephone listing for his party chairman, Nicholas J. Forster, but Forster said the request was just "a desperate attempt" to embarrass him.
The exchange between the two Democrats is the latest development in long-standing differences of opinion. Virtuoso lost a bitter battle for the party chairmanship to Forster in September 1996.
Virtuoso has called for an investigation of how Forster's county office telephone number appeared in a publication distributed last July by the New York State Democratic Party. Besides being chairman of the Niagara County Democratic Committee, Forster is the coordinator of the county's program to stop drunken driving.
The legislator suggested that the listing could be a violation of the county's Code of Ethics, which states: "No county property or equipment shall be used in connection with any election campaign or to aid any political party, political party organization, election campaign, or candidate."
When asked if he believes Forster was engaging in political activity in his county Stop-DWI office, Virtuoso said: "I have no idea. That's why you need an investigation. They can pull phone records and see if he made any outgoing calls."
However, Forster said in an Oct. 7 memo to Legislature Chairman Sean O'Connor:
"At no time did I submit or authorize to submit a work telephone number . . . to any political organization."
Forster said the issue was raised in an anonymous letter sent in August to legislators and to some members of the press. He said he had no idea how the county office number wound up in the party directory of county chairmen.
Forster said the phone listing in the July issue of New York Democrats Insiders' Report was quickly corrected when he called state headquarters. O'Connor said he received a letter from state Democratic Chairwoman Judith Hope, which attributed the listing of Forster's county number to a clerical error.
"When discovered, our records were changed, and the proper numbers put on all official lists. The New York State Democratic Committee accepts full responsibility for the error and has strengthened its procedures to ensure this doesn't happen again," O'Connor quoted Ms. Hope as writing.
The Legislature chairman, who also is a Niagara Falls Democrat, said he was satisfied by Forster's explanation.
Virtuoso commented, "Common sense will tell you that they probably asked him where they could get a hold of him, and he told them. . . . Any complaint we get should always be checked out and investigated by Sean (O'Connor) or the committee (that oversees the affected department)."
Forster said, "It would be awfully stupid for me to send that (telephone number) in. I've got a (party) headquarters."
O'Connor said, "Mr. Forster said he did not supply that information. I feel very comfortable with that response."
Legislator Lee Simonson, R-Lewiston, who sponsored a recent resolution that would have banned appointees of the County Legislature or of its chairman from serving as political party officers, said the Board of Ethics should take up the case "if Nick Forster has used county property for political purposes."
Simonson's resolution would have been subject to a public hearing before it could become law, but a motion to call the hearing was twice defeated in the Legislature on a virtually party-line vote, with almost all of the Democrats voting against it and almost all Republicans voting for it.
Simonson said, "I don't want a department head telling a legislator what to do." He said Forster's alleged political activity on county time "is one of the many things I wanted to prevent."
At present, Forster would be the only person affected by Simonson's measure. Forster said it was clearly pointed at him, charging that Simonson's first draft referred to department heads. "When he found I wasn't a department head, he changed it," Forster said.
"I welcome his or anyone else's scrutiny," Forster said. "There's a lot of issues in government to examine rather than something so lame." Scott Whitbeck, head of the Niagara Business Alliance, which suggested the measure Simonson introduced, said: "We really were promoting it as a good government proposal. Using it as a club to hit your political opponents looks bad."