A federal investigation removed Vince Anello from his perch atop this city's political scene. But 10 months in prison hasn't tempered the former mayor's feisty nature or consumed his life with regret.
"One act makes me a criminal? Maybe by the title -- [but] that's not who I am," Anello said Tuesday. "I don't believe that's my legacy."
In his first interview since his December release from a minimum-security federal prison in Cumberland, Md., Anello expressed remorse about the false statements he filed with an electrical workers union that resulted in a 13-month sentence.
"Yes, of course, I regret what I did," he said. "But you can do something wrong and not have criminal intent."
Because Anello was a retiree receiving a pension from the union, he was allowed to work only part time as an electrician. He acknowledged that he was working full time while collecting his pension and falsely telling the union that he was a part-time employee.
But it was a different corruption charge that stirs Anello's anger. The charge -- centered on $40,000 in loans he accepted from smoke shop owner and Falls developer Joseph "Smokin' Joe" Anderson, in installments while Anello was running for mayor and shortly after he took office -- was dropped by prosecutors after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
"Why is that the focus? Why is that more interesting?" he asked. "I was an honest businessman who needed another loan from a businessman."
Anello, 65, said he has repaid a part of the loan to Anderson and intends to repay the rest when he finds employment. He also was ordered to pay $55,273 to the union and had paid $10,000 by the time of his sentencing.
Others believe that the charge and Anello's subsequent prison term cast a familiar pall of corruption over the city.
"I think his subsequent indictment and all that's come from that, it's certainly something that people notice who come to the city to do business," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster, Anello's successor. "I don't doubt that Mayor Anello loved the city and wanted to see it prosper, but that legacy, unfortunately, is an obstacle to be overcome."
The Sicilian immigrant's love for Niagara Falls has not waned. Anello denies that the city is corrupt, saying that it's filled with hardworking people whose interests are often taken advantage of by developers and "vultures" he opposed during his years in office.
He also remains proud of his four-year term from 2004 to 2007, saying that it laid the groundwork for development and public works projects advanced under Dyster and put the city in a better financial position.
"There isn't one single thing that's happening now in the City of Niagara Falls that wasn't initiated or advanced in my administration," Anello said. "I think my legacy would be one of the better mayors that this city has had in modern times."
Anello said he didn't spend his time in prison sulking or lamenting his fate. Instead, he taught courses in U.S. government and became a mentor to younger prisoners, some of whom were without father figures.
He also became active in the prison's Catholic chapel group and worked to change negative perceptions of the religion, he said. Anello refused to use the term "prison," saying he spent his sentence in a "camp."
"It's not like what you see on TV," he said. "It's more of a campuslike setting, only you don't have access to the outside [area] after 8 o'clock, when the recreation yard is down."
Anello acknowledged that he paid the price for his actions but suggested that he would have preferred to defend himself at a trial rather than enter a guilty plea. He said he could not afford to keep paying renowned defense attorney Joel L. Daniels and worried about the toll of a trial on his family.
"My own personal, selfish situation was I would have fought it," he said. "But I had to make a judgment. How much more was I going to let my family suffer?"
That family -- especially his five grandchildren -- is the focus of Anello's life now.
He was released from prison early because of good behavior, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said, and will be under supervision for two years.
He still resides at his Independence Avenue home and had been helping his brother run his Pine Avenue business, Anello Wineplace, which sells wine- and beer-making products. Anello still controls his electrical business, but it has not been active. He keeps in contact with friends he has made over the years as an electrician and a politician, though some of them have fallen out of touch.
"I thought about my family. I thought about my friends," he said of the hours he spent locked away. "I was able to find out who my real friends were and people who were friends because of the position I held."
Anello said he has no plans to re-enter politics but would advise others looking to make a run. He knows that some will focus on his prison sentence but believes that others will see him as a competent mayor.
"I did 65 years [as a] solid, good citizen," he said. "I made a mistake, I paid for it, and if that's all that people want to remember, if people want to judge me for it, that says more about them than about me.
"That doesn't describe my whole life. I did what I had to do, and that's something that's behind me."