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ZARBO THE FOCUS OF ONLINE LEGAL DEFENSE FUND

Put Richard Zarbo's name through an Internet search, and you never know what you will get.

The Lancaster councilman, who raised eyebrows by selling guns on the Internet, is now the focus of an online legal defense fund, raising money in connection with a $7 million defamation case filed against him.

The online fund-raiser posted on an Internet message board gives Zarbo's address and directs contributions to his Lancaster home. But Zarbo said that he had nothing to do with establishing the site, and that he has not received any money from the message board.

Zarbo said he doesn't know who is sponsoring the "Friends of Rick Zarbo" legal defense fund, but speculated it's sportsmen's groups who support his position on guns.

The lawsuit against Zarbo revolves around comments he made about the way a particular developer does business in town. The suit has nothing to do with guns or Second Amendment issues. However, the message board raising money on the councilman's behalf gives that impression.

"Zarbo has been under attack . . . for his pro-guns and pro-rights positions," the posting states. The fund-raiser, it says, supports "our rights under the Constitution of the United States."

A colorful and controversial figure on the Lancaster Town Board, Zarbo is one of two Republicans in a government heavily controlled by Democrats.

The first-term councilman has made enemies among Democratic colleagues as well as some wealthy developers in town, including Joseph A. Cipolla, president of the Bella Vista Group and vice chairman of the Erie County Conservative Party.

Zarbo has accused Cipolla of throwing his weight around to get "sweetheart" deals in Town Hall. Cipolla in May filed a $7 million lawsuit against Zarbo alleging defamation, harassment and slander.

Zarbo views the lawsuit as an attempt to silence him -- about many issues.

"He's trying to gag me through the use of a lawsuit, through the threat of ruining my life through a lawsuit," Zarbo said. "He wants me to shut up, and I'm not going to whether it's gun rights or backdoor deals. I will not change my stand."

Zarbo also said that on the one hand the town should be representing him, but on the other, he doesn't like the idea of taxpayers' footing that bill.

The town's last insurance company said the case falls outside the scope of Zarbo's duties as a town Council member, and therefore, the town does not have to represent him.

But Lancaster now has a new insurance company, which is considering the issue and has indicated it might represent Zarbo.

"First, they need to define their coverage obligations, and No. 2, if we do have coverage, are (Zarbo's) actions within the scope of his duties as town employee," said Town Attorney Richard J. Sherwood, who has said in the past that he doesn't think the town is responsible for Zarbo's defense.

Meanwhile, Zarbo has hired civil rights attorney David Jay to defend him in the lawsuit. Zarbo expresses confidence he will win, but says the case has already cost him thousands in legal fees.

Zarbo said he already is getting some fund-raising help from Leon Chowaniec of Lancaster, who is concerned about development. Chowaniec's anti-sprawl group won a court suit that effectively puts on hold Cipolla's plans for a 36-acre, 270,000-square-foot shopping center in the town.

Meanwhile, Zarbo said he has been hearing that a "big" online fund-raiser will be held on his behalf in the spring. He said he knows nothing more about it. He knows, he says, only what he reads on the Internet message board.

"My supporters probably started (the online legal defense fund), and I have no control over the funds or what they're doing," he said. "I take it as a great compliment that people are trying to help, and any support I accept from anyone will be made public."

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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