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Erie County corrections officer Vincent J. Grasso's 14-month-old defamation suit against Deputy County Executive James P. Keane, Correctional Facility Superintendent Fred Netzel and the county for openly questioning his 1996 sick leave claim was dismissed Friday.

State Supreme Court Justice Frank A. Sedita Jr. agreed with Assistant County Attorney Kristin Klein Wheaton that Grasso -- who sought unspecified financial damages -- failed to prove the defendants had "actual malice" in challenging his sick leave.

Sedita agreed with Ms. Wheaton that the comments of Keane, Netzel and other county officials to The Buffalo News for a Dec. 15, 1996, article about sick leave problems at the Alden jail involving Grasso and others were non-defamatory and stemmed from "a matter of common interest."

Sedita conducted a hearing on the case Tuesday,

Neither Grasso, 38, of Hamburg, who continues to work at the jail, nor his attorney, Harvey P. Sanders, could be reached for comment.

County Attorney Kenneth A. Schoetz said, "We are pleased the judge ruled that the county government needs to conduct investigations of employee abuse of sick leave and any other type of leave, and that such inquiries are needed to protect the taxpayers. This ruling will help us continue doing that," Schoetz said.

Grasso retained his $32,000-a-year jail job despite the flap over his 1996 sick leave.

In the 1996 article, Netzel complained that some 35 jail guards, including Grasso, had cost county taxpayers $1 million in extended sick leave in recent years because they were eligible for the same long-term benefits injured police officers and firefighters get under state law.

Grasso claimed he suffered right hip, shoulder and back injuries in a May 24, OVER 16 LNs1996, mishap at the Erie County Medical Center and became the unintended victim of a political falling-out that year between former Erie County Democratic Chairman Vincent J. Sorrentino and County Executive Gorski

Grasso in the December 1996 article said he owed his $32,000-a-year county job to Sorrentino.

In dismissing the suit, Sedita agreed with Ms. Wheaton that as a corrections officer Grasso is a "public figure" who had to demonstrate "actual malice" by Keane and Netzel which the judge said he found lacking.

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