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Ranzenhofer aide says firing was retaliation

An aide to State Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer says she was fired last week because she angered the Erie County Republican establishment by supporting congressional candidate David Bellavia.

Now Michelle McCulloch, 45, says she is contemplating legal action against her old boss. She said she was fired by the Williamsville Republican because he supports former County Executive Chris Collins in the Republican congressional primary on June 26.

"There is no question in my mind I was fired for supporting David Bellavia for Congress," she said. "The order came from Chris Collins and the Erie County machine."

Ranzenhofer, who has not officially endorsed anyone in the primary contest, would not discuss McCulloch's firing other than to acknowledge that it occurred.

"She knows why she was terminated," he said. "It's a personnel decision, and we don't discuss those in the public domain."

But Wyoming County Republican Chairman Gordon M. Brown, whose organization is supporting Bellavia, said other county leaders told him Ranzenhofer has asked his entire staff to remain neutral.

Yet McCulloch was asked to circulate designating petitions for Collins, as were others on the Ranzenhofer staff, he noted.

"I'm not sure they are neutral," he said. "If that's his position, then perhaps he should continue the process -- which may leave him with no staff."

McCulloch, an Attica resident, is a Wyoming County committeewoman who previously worked for former Reps. Thomas M. Reynolds and Christopher J. Lee. She earned $45,000 annually as outreach coordinator for Ranzenhofer's office, where she had worked for about a year.

McCulloch said she was questioned by the senator last month when she and several others were named to Bellavia's districtwide steering committee. She said Ranzenhofer expressed his "displeasure" over her involvement and instructed her to report any other activities on Bellavia's behalf directly to him.

On April 26, she said she introduced Bellavia to several potential supporters at an Attica affair in Wyoming County, where she has long been active in GOP circles and outside Ranzenhofer's district. She said Collins and Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy also attended the event.

McCulloch said that while Ranzenhofer disapproved of her role in the Bellavia campaign, she felt she was following his instructions when the next day she reported her attendance at the Attica event.

The next work day, she said the senator's chief of staff fired her upon arrival in the district office. Though she said she was given no reason, she blamed her support of Bellavia.

"No reasonable person can reach any other conclusion," she said. "I never had one issue in that office until then."

McCulloch emphasized she circulated Collins petitions when asked.

"We, as a staff, were not allowed to support Bellavia without going to Sen. Ranzenhofer first," she said. "The one time I did, I was fired the next day.

"I was not under the assumption my job was in jeopardy," she added.

The former staffer said she blames her termination on Michael J. Hook, a Washington political consultant and Lancaster native who has worked in the past for Collins and Ranzenhofer.

Hook said he does not know McCulloch and would not recognize her if he saw her on the street.

"As a result, I don't care where she works or where she doesn't," he said.

Langworthy said he was not aware of her termination and called any suggestion of his involvement "nonsense."

"I had absolutely nothing to do with it," he said.

Collins also denied any knowledge of the situation.

McCulloch, meanwhile, felt she should be allowed to support Bellavia because the Republican organization in Wyoming County -- where she lives -- was officially supporting Bellavia.

"Wyoming County came out for David, and that's who I supported," she said.

Now she says she is unemployed in a household with four children that relied on her income.

"I have not ruled this out," she said of possible litigation. "He absolutely cannot say I was fired for any legitimate reason."