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Playing favorites ; Decisions in Niagara DA's office raise questions of equal justice

Do favored people get favorable treatment in the office of Niagara County District Attorney Michael J. Violante? It sure looks that way, in part because of kid-glove treatment in a couple of questionable cases, because Violante refuses to bring in outside help and because he refuses to explain himself. He is operating within the bounds of the law, but not out of common sense or respect.

The Buffalo News reported earlier that Violante drew controversy when his office reduced charges of driving while intoxicated for the daughter of North Tonawanda Alderwoman Nancy A. Donovan. In July, Sara E. Donovan, 23, was charged with driving while intoxicated after her car struck two parked vehicles on Payne Avenue. She was allowed to plead to speeding and parking violations.

Now it has been revealed that something similar occurred 19 months earlier, when Violante's nephew also faced charges of driving while intoxicated after driving his car into a snowbank. Three weeks after the crash, Timothy L. Violante was permitted to plead guilty in Lewiston Town Court to driving at a speed not reasonably prudent and disobeying a traffic device.

The district attorney -- who doesn't much like explaining himself -- told reporters he didn't think a special prosecutor was necessary and refused further comment, but as with the Donovan case, the arrangement was unusually considerate.

Violante, deeply involved in the Republican Party, took his hands off both these cases. In fact, all lawyers involved said that the district attorney played no role in the outcome. But the underlying role that the Republican had inside and outside his office has to be considered and raises questions as to why there were no efforts to seek a special prosecutor. Even if he didn't have to do so, Violante and his staff should have taken into consideration the court of public opinion. That would have been true if Donovan and his nephew had received standard treatment from the courts; it is all the more so, given the tenderness they were afforded.

Legally, Violante and his staff are standing on solid ground.

The authoritative New York decision in a similar case involved a district attorney's cousin. In that matter, the judge concluded that the familial relationship did, in fact, create an appearance of impropriety. He ruled that a special prosecutor should have been appointed.

It was a decision that wisely took into account the critical but amorphous factor of public confidence in the justice system, but the Appellate Division in New York City reversed the judge. It rejected the standard of the appearance of impropriety, ruling that an assistant in the district attorney's office could have handled the case appropriately, thus insulating the DA from the proceedings.

But real life doesn't work that way. Because of the light sentences in these two cases, the public has cause to wonder just how justice is perceived in the DA's office. Violante did step back in these two cases, allowing his staff to handle both matters, but does anyone think that the outcomes weren't, in some way, influenced by Violante's authority? Sending cases out to special prosecutors creates additional costs, it is true, but we suspect the public would understand.

There are other cases in which Violante has taken a dismissive attitude toward the media and public regarding his decisions. They include the case of Jeffrey B. Pasquantino, the Niagara Falls School District employee who was caught by a private investigator doing home repair for school district leaders during work hours. He quit and Violante declined to prosecute. No explanation.

More recently brought to light by The News is that newly elected Village of Wilson Trustee James J. O'Donnell III was charged with driving while intoxicated in 2008. His attorney, Thomas W. Scirto of Lockport, said last week he wrote directly to Violante, asking for a non-alcohol plea for O'Donnell, citing several reasons and mentioning his client was on the Village Board. Not so amazingly, Violante signed a plea offer for O'Donnell, allowing him to plead guilty to speeding and failure to keep right. O'Donnell was fined $400 and got the return of his driver's license. Violante chose not to be interviewed about the case. Again, no surprise.

Assuming the district attorney still has aspirations for next year's elections, as his fundraisers have suggested, he may want to open up to the public. The public deserves far more insight into decisions made by his office, as has been expressed on this page in the past. But in the end, it will be up to Niagara County voters to decide whether they mind having a district attorney who is accommodating to the politically connected, and otherwise the silent type.

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