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BLOWING THE WHISTLE ON LANDFILL BRIBE

Former Lewiston Town Attorney Edward P. Jesella Jr. hadn't thought about making headlines in years, he said, until a reporter called him.

Twelve years ago, landfill owner Steve Washuta walked into his office with a bundle of cash in a brown paper bag.

The FBI had the place wired for sound and video, capturing Washuta's unsuccessful attempt to bribe Jesella for help with expanding Modern Landfill. Washuta pleaded guilty in 1995 and forfeited $1.2 million. The millionaire was sentenced to six months home confinement after his doctors convinced a judge that he had less than a year to live.

Nine years later, Washuta is getting around all right without the cane he used in the federal courtroom in Buffalo. Jesella's getting around just fine, too.

Even in a small town such as Lewiston, it "never got uncomfortable," said Jesella, who continues practicing law behind the same desk, though he has not been town attorney since 1998. "I think we've seen each other twice in 10 years. Both times we saw each other, we nodded, said hello, and went on with our business."

The landfill got to expand, anyway. Jesella moved to Youngstown six years ago, but otherwise his life has not changed much because he blew the whistle on Washuta. He still runs a solo general law practice, and has continued a 28-year career as a public defender. "To me, it's firmly in the past," he said. "Until you called me, I hadn't thought about it in a long time."

But from time to time, Jesella said, people will come to his law office and hire him. "People will tell me that they remember what happened back then," he said, "and that's why they've come to me."

Clients have told him that "they wanted somebody that they felt had integrity."

Despite not having a sign in front of his office, or much advertising, his law practice has grown through word of mouth. "It's gotten to the point that last year we were talking about adding another attorney or two, or cutting back," Jesella said. "I cut back."

Long an active Democrat, he has given politics a rest. He enjoys kayaking, gardening and oil painting.

Asked whether the events had a lasting effect, Jesella paused.

"Even before this happened, my business was such (that) you become somewhat cynical about human beings -- because I see so much, whether it's the criminal element, or even in everyday problems with family matters," he said.

Most of the attorneys he knows understood what he did, Jesella said. "By and large, they were very good," he said. "But one attorney I had known most of my life came up to me in the law stacks one day. He looked right at me, and said, 'I would have taken the money.'

"I said, 'What?'

"He says, 'I would have taken the money. No one would have known.'

"And he just turned around and walked away. What do you say to that?"

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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