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RUMORE OFF TO JAIL AS PLEAS FAIL TO SWAY COURT

Rep. John J. LaFalce, state Comptroller H. Carl McCall and Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve couldn't keep Philip Rumore out of jail.

Neither could Common Council President James W. Pitts, or Assemblymen Brian M. Higgins and Richard A. Smith.

All those high-profile public officials -- and more -- sent letters urging State Supreme Court Justice Kevin M. Dillon not to impose a jail term on the Buffalo Teachers Federation president for violating a no-strike court order by leading a teachers strike on Sept. 14.

But Dillon saw it differently on Friday, and Rumore -- carrying $50 for use at the commissary and an 800-page paperback book on Albert Einstein -- began serving a 15-day jail term for contempt of court.

"What it came down to was: Either you were in charge or the law was in charge," Dillon told Rumore during an intense, hour-long court session. "In words and deeds, you made it clear you were not going to adhere to court orders you did not agree with. That is difficult for me to accept and impossible for me to condone."

Pitts had urged leniency, writing: "To mete out punishment would only reinforce division and act as a bitter and constant reminder of deconstruction. Because you have the last word, I am confident you will begin the healing process."

And Board of Education Member Donald A. Van Every argued against a jail term, but for a different reason. He feared that Rumore would become a martyr behind bars.

Dillon would have none of it. He said the strike "inflicted harm on the city, its citizens and its children," and "made a mockery of court authority."

If court orders were routinely ignored, the judge said, "then we would have a society that's in chaos."

And he said chaos was an accurate way to describe what happened when teachers twice decided to strike earlier this month just before schools were scheduled to open.

Barbara Bielecki and Edith LeWin, BTF officers who also pleaded guilty to contempt, were spared jail terms and were hit with $1,000 fines.

In a telephone interview shortly before entering jail, Rumore said he was not nervous or upset during the three hours between the sentencing and his 2 p.m. reporting time at the county Holding Center in downtown Buffalo. He was expected to be transferred from there to the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.

"Jail is something I've been preparing for since we took the (strike) action," he said. "It's not something I look forward to, but it's something I knew was coming."

Rumore -- who also was hit with a $1,000 fine -- said it was appropriate that he got jail time while Bielecki and LeWin -- who will preside over BTF business in his absence -- got fines.

"I'm the one who is president," he said. "I'm the one who recommended it (the strike) and executed it. I should bear the brunt of the consequences."

Masiello agrees with ruling

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello said Dillon's decision was on target.

"Obviously, this should never have gotten this far, but it did, and that's unfortunate," Masiello said. "But it was a willful and deliberate act of disobedience that needed to be addressed strongly and fairly, and I think Judge Dillon's sentencing accomplishes that."

Van Every argued against a jail term, saying it would confer on Rumore the status of "a martyr."

When Thomas Pisa, a former BTF president, was sentenced to jail after a teachers strike in the late 1970s, "he actually became more of a hero to his members," Van Every wrote. "I'm asking to avoid such a scenario."

In other letters to Dillon made public on Friday, many public officials argued against jail for other reasons.

"A sentence including jail terms would serve no one and would likely be a disservice to the Buffalo public schools, its administrators, teachers and students who are settling into the next school year," wrote LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda.

"In my opinion, the best resolution to the current situation would be one that helps bring it to a close, rather than continuing to inflame passions on either side," McCall said..

Eve, Higgins and Smith, all local Democratic assemblymen, co-authored a letter that called jail time "inappropriate." County Legislator Judith P. Fisher wrote a letter that praised Rumore, but fell short of making a specific recommendation. And Bettye M. Blackman, a former member of the Buffalo School Board, said a jail term would "keep open wounds that need to heal quickly."

Dillon received dozens of letters about Rumore, LeWin and Bielecki. Many of them were highly laudatory, and none of them recommended jail. Legal sources said that was not unusual -- and should not be seen as a broader measure of public opinion -- since defendants routinely solicit favorable recommendations from co-workers, friends and clergy.

Rumore's mom proud of him

Dillon -- who could have imposed 30-day jail terms on all three defendants -- said there are many people who will consider Rumore's 15-day term too lenient.

The judge said he did not impose the maximum sentence partly because Rumore cut short what could have been a weeklong trial last week by pleading guilty to the contempt count, and because he waived his right to appeal.

The sentencing decision was made harder because the contempt of court laws do not allow judges to order community service -- which was mistakenly recommended by both McCall and Van Every -- as an alternative to jail, Dillon said.

"If I could impose a sentence of community service, I would," Dillon told LeWin. "But I can't."

Dillon, who has run for office in the past with BTF support, said the strike was not designed to change an unjust law and should not be considered civil disobedience.

"It was about negotiating a contract," he said.

Although a contract settlement was reached shortly after the two one-day strikes, Dillon insisted that the job action was harmful to the union.

"The strike held your members up to public ridicule," he told Rumore. "You did a disservice to your membership."

Rumore, who earned college degrees in philosophy and physics, said he chose the book on Einstein as the one paperback he was allowed to bring to jail. When he finishes it, he said, he will ask friends to bring him a copy of "The Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein."

Before reporting to jail, Rumore said, he had lunch at BTF headquarters and called his mother in Florida. "She said she understood I did what I had to do," he said. "She wasn't happy that I was going to jail, but she was proud that I stood up and took the consequences."

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