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DA says most election law cases can't be probed

District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III has reiterated what others in his position have said before - neither his office nor the state Board of Elections has the staff or resources to investigate most violations of election law.

Reacting to a Friday story in The Buffalo News about a woman who lodged official complaints about Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples' delinquent campaign finance reports, Sedita said he sympathized with Debbie Keihl of Middleport.

But he also said state Board of Elections referrals of election law violations to his office are often moot because the statute of limitations has expired or the board has submitted no evidence from an investigation.

"I sense the woman's frustration, but it's not like we ignored her," Sedita said, adding that one of his assistant district attorneys had talked with Keihl about her complaints.

"We will do investigations, but we have to decide what we can do because of our limitations," he said. "My dilemma is: As district attorney, do I do the felony case where we're trying to get a six-figure restitution, or do I fool around with something that ends up being a misdemeanor?"

Keihl, who said she is not part of any organized effort against Peoples, D-Buffalo, expressed frustration last week over the failure of any investigatory agency to follow through on her complaints. She pointed out that Peoples never filed eight delinquent campaign finance reports and did not pay $5,445 in subsequent fines.

The assemblywoman replied that much of the required information is missing after her campaign's laptop computer was stolen, which she said she reported to police. She also said she is negotiating with the Board of Elections in Albany in hopes that paying her fine will settle the case.

But Sedita said the whole situation underscores a system in which the State Legislature passes campaign finance laws without providing money to finance required investigations and subsequent prosecutions.

"I don't blame them," he said of Board of Elections officials, "because the state has not funded them. They don't have the capacity to do the investigations."

Sedita echoed sentiments expressed last year by Frank J. Clark, his predecessor as district attorney, who said in November that he could not honor the request of the Erie County Board of Elections to probe its allegations of election law violations against Buffalo Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano.

Democratic Elections Commissioner Dennis E. Ward and his Republican counterpart, Ralph M. Mohr, had accused the political committee of G. Steven Pigeon, former chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, of laundering thousands of dollars in an attempt to conceal its origin and circumvent contribution limits. They asked Clark and the district attorneys of Niagara, Monroe and Genesee counties to launch a criminal investigation of the charges, which centered on allegations of illegal coordination with the campaign of Joe Mesi, an unsuccessful Democratic State Senate candidate.

Monroe County District Attorney Michael C. Green also cited staff limitations when he passed on investigating similar allegations that Jeremy C. Toth, a campaign aide to Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, raised after last September's primary election.

Before retiring Dec. 31, Clark said that his successor would not be bound by his decision. Sedita would offer no comment on the move at the time, but he said this week that he would not look into the commissioners' complaints because he, too, lacks the staff and resources.

When asked about charges his predecessor lodged last fall against former West Seneca Supervisor Paul T. Clark for misdemeanor campaign finance violations committed during his unsuccessful campaign for county executive in 2007, Sedita said the FBI conducted most of that probe.

"I read the memoranda," he said. "They coordinated with our internal investigators."

Blair Horner, spokesman for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the law's good intentions seldom lead to action because of a lack of resources to fund enforcement.

"No matter how weak the laws are, they are coupled with non-existent enforcement," he said. "Since no one takes it seriously, the candidates don't, either."

rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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