Former Cattaraugus County Democratic Chairman Daniel McCandless pleaded guilty Tuesday to three counts of election law violations, admitting that he forged signatures on designating petitions he circulated for local candidates.
McCandless acknowledged the violations in Cattaraugus County Court before Judge Larry M. Himelein, who set sentencing for Nov. 24. McCandless could receive up to one year in jail for each of the violations.
The case stems from complaints registered with the Cattaraugus County Board of Elections by County Legislator Jerry E. Burrell, R-Franklinville, who also asked the State Police to launch an investigation soon after the July 16 date for submitting the petitions.
After Cattaraugus County District Attorney Edward M. Sharkey recused himself from the case because he is running for re-election this year, Himelein appointed Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III as special prosecutor.
Sedita's efforts resulted in the guilty pleas to three counts of making a false statement. And after fielding some criticism that his office was reluctant to prosecute election law cases, Sedita said Tuesday that if he is given the proper investigatory resources, he is only too happy to tackle such crimes.
"It's not that I'm gun-shy about people doing election law violations," Sedita said. "If I am provided with the statutory prerequites and investigative resources, I will do these."
Sedita complimented State Police Investigator Brian Ratajczak, who led the probe. He said McCandless signed what are known as "kitchen table" signatures on petitions for Franklinville Town Board races.
"He did it on the Franklinville petitions because he didn't have enough signatures," the district attorney said. "He just signed them all himself."
The defendant then signed statements verifying the signatures as authentic, Sedita said.
McCandless, a Town of Franklinville resident who works as a Buffalo News distributor in Cattaraugus County, resigned from the party helm July 27 as the State Police probe intensified.
Sedita called it "unusual" for the State Police to investigate cases of election fraud but said it underscores his contention that such crimes can only be probed and prosecuted when police agencies can devote full time to them.
"Why [doesn't] the Buffalo Police Department or the Amherst Police Department or the Sheriff's Office prosecute these?" he asked. "It's because they are not set up to do it. I think the State Police became involved because forgery was involved, and it was easier to prove."
"But the larger issue is not that the DA will not take it," he said. "They give us the evidence, and we'll prosecute anyone."
Sedita praised Sharkey's "professionalism and for demonstrating a high degree of ethical standard in calling for a special prosecutor."
News Staff Reporter Matt Gryta and Cattaraugus Correspondent Kathy Kellogg contributed to this report.