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It's a shame Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark decided not to bring criminal charges against those in the Sheriff's Department informally accused of improper fund-raising during last fall's political campaign.

Ambiguities in the law prevent such prosecutions, Clark says, after looking into the reports that higher-ups in the Sheriff's Department solicited financial contributions from deputies in support of Rocco Diina, Democratic candidate for sheriff.

But here's a tempting question. How much of that ambiguity is unintended, and how much is calculated?

Whatever the answer, the fund-raising crossed ethical boundaries and undermined the professionalism of a law-enforcement agency. Bosses soliciting political campaign contributions from deputies under their control smacks of coercion, intended or not. If that is not illegal, it should be.

Dropping the case, Clark explained that, on the one hand, there's a body of law that says sheriff's personnel "are not to be included under the statute," while, on the other hand, several informal decisions by the Board of Elections say the same personnel are covered.

In light of this uncertainty, he added, "I cannot say they are violating the statute. I can't base a criminal prosecution on that since no one is sure whether sheriff's personnel are a covered group or not."

The only answer, he suggests, is a clarification of the law resulting either from a definitive court decision or more precise language amending the statute by the State Legislature.

Unless one or the other happens, then, New Yorkers can expect that political fund-raising in the races for sheriff will continue unabated. After all, as some protest, everyone does it.

A solution may not be simple and easy. Custom and conditions and attitudes, as well as reason, are engaged. Society tells elected officials that they must raise money from the public to campaign and then -- more or less, and often less -- sets up fences around a practice that fairly invites abuse of one sort or another.

If a court decision could clarify the law, for example, Clark might have chosen to prosecute in order to test the law and force a judicial clarification of it. If any state lawmakers are interested, they could poke at this political hornet's nest with proposed language to make the existing statute more definite than it now is.

It's not beyond the realm of possibility, though, that these gray ambiguities where principle and practical politics merge retain a certain comforting attraction.

So despite the ethical and other benefits of reform, whether any overpowering urgency exists in Albany to clarify the law remains very much to be seen.

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