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Democrats say e-mail implicates Wojtaszek

LOCKPORT -- Niagara County Legislature Democrats took a swing at county GOP Chairman Henry F. Wojtaszek last week, charging him with unethical behavior.

Evidence in the hearing on the lawsuit filed to try to overturn the property tax break the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency gave to AES Corp. last year dragged Wojtaszek into that case.

An e-mail by AES Project Manager Jon Reimann, entered into evidence in the June 11-14 State Supreme Court hearing on the lawsuit, said that Wojtaszek sat in on a meeting Aug. 8 between IDA Chairman Henry M. Sloma, Harris Beach attorney Shawn M. Griffin and AES executives.

Wojtaszek is a partner in Harris Beach, the firm that represents the IDA.

The topic of the meeting, the e-mail said, was how to obtain a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, arrangement on the AES Somerset power plant. It doesn't mention Wojtaszek after the first sentence.

Wojtaszek maintains he was never at a meeting that simultaneously included Reimann, Sloma and Griffin.

"I just don't believe him," said Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls. "Why would his name be on there if he wasn't there?"

"Jon Reimann must have his dates confused or is thinking of some other meeting," Wojtaszek said.

Reimann said, "I'm not going to comment on ongoing litigation."

The Aug. 9 e-mail from Reimann to AES Somerset President Kevin R. Pierce begins, "We meet (sic) with Henry Sloma, Sean (sic) Griffin and Henry Wotasik (sic) yesterday to discuss the PILOT. Sean Griffin is from Harris Beach, representing the Niagara County IDA."

Virtuoso said the e-mail dovetails with another that was entered into evidence, discussing a July meeting between AES executives, Sloma and State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, at which the PILOT was discussed.

"More and more, we're finding out the political honchos were involved in this thing," Virtuoso said.

In February 2005, the county Board of Ethics, asked for an advisory opinion, said that it was all right for Harris Beach to work for the IDA as long as Wojtaszek played no role and did not benefit financially from the retainer.

"What was he doing at a meeting that gave away $45 million of the taxpayers' money?" Virtuoso demanded. "If he wasn't doing legal work, he must have been doing political work. What was he doing playing politics with the IDA?"

During Tuesday night's Legislature meeting, Virtuoso threatened to take Wojtaszek to the Board of Ethics unless he got some answers. However, Wojtaszek is not a county official and his activities are not directly governed by the code.

Wojtaszek released a letter he had obtained Tuesday from Griffin. It was addressed to County Attorney Claude A. Joerg, counsel to the Board of Ethics.

Griffin wrote, "I have checked all files for which Harris Beach has been involved as counsel to (the) Niagara County Industrial Development Agency and write this letter to confirm for you that Mr. Wojtaszek has not received any compensation based on our law firm acting as counsel (to the IDA) and Mr. Wojtaszek has not performed any legal services (for the IDA)."

That was apparently what Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove was referring to when he replied to Virtuoso's charges by saying, "I assume there will be a filing to the Board of Ethics in the very near future."

Legislator Sean J. O'Connor, D-Niagara Falls, told The Buffalo News that as a partner, Wojtaszek benefits to some degree from all the Harris Beach firm's activities.

But a Feb. 15, 2005, letter from Griffin to Mark J. Gabriele, an IDA attorney who has since joined Harris Beach, declared that Wojtaszek was "a non-equity partner," paid a fixed salary instead of a cut of the gross.

"Mr. Wojtaszek will not receive any form of compensation based on Harris Beach LLP acting as counsel to (the IDA) ," the 2005 letter said.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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