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Conservatives flock to the public payroll Many party players hold jobs that rely on government's ability to tax and spend

In these heady days for the Erie County Conservative Party, its spark plug of a chairman describes the Conservatives' ideals:

"We are the party of lesser government, individual responsibility and traditional social values," says Ralph C. Lorigo, who has the power to call party-favored politicians into his West Seneca law office should they stray too far from crucial Conservative beliefs.

"We are for less taxation. Less governmental interference. Less entitlements. Less restrictions in regulations. And for individual responsibility as opposed to governmental supervision."

The party name connotes a philosophy about governing -- less government, less taxation. So it differs from the Republicans and Democrats in that respect. In other ways, it's hardly different at all.

Just as lieutenants in the Republican and Democratic parties flock to public payrolls, high-ranking members of the less-government party accept government employment.

Of the 32 people listed on the Conservatives' Executive Committee -- not counting Lorigo -- 26 hold or have held a government job, or a spouse holds or has held a government job, according to payroll data.

They are not necessarily patronage appointees, though a few have been. Many have worked in the trenches as lawmen, bureaucrats, educators and blue-collar workers -- jobs that critics of tax-and-spend practices seize upon when bemoaning bloated government and lavish public-worker benefits.

There's a retiree who returned to the public payroll; households where both committee member and spouse hold government posts; and a committee member who collects two public salaries. Meanwhile, some have been board members paid stipends that fall far short of full-time pay.

The household income, health insurance or pension payments for nearly all of those 26 Conservative Party decision-makers -- roughly 80 percent of the Executive Committee -- have rested on a government's ability to tax and spend.

Lorigo says the members landed those jobs on their own, not because of his intervention. But is this the party image voters conjure up when selecting a Conservative-backed politician?

"Minor parties in New York have oftentimes not been what their labels suggest," said Michael Haselswerdt, a Canisius College political science professor. "Historically those labels have just been labels, and they haven't had substantive meaning "

"In the full spectrum of things, they are probably more conservative than liberal," Haselswerdt said of the party's leadership. "But in terms of having positions in government, they are perfectly willing to do that."

> The Paladino effect

These are good days for the Conservatives. Carl Paladino hauled in so many votes on the Conservative line in his 2010 race for governor he pulled the party back to the ballot's third position, behind the Democrats and Republicans. Lorigo, Erie's longest-serving party chairman, harnessed Paladino to the Conservative line after State Chairman Michael Long opted for Republican Rick Lazio.

"The Conservatives are the main player outside the Democrat and Republican parties," said Frank Max, chairman of the Democratic Party in Cheektowaga, who, it should be noted, holds a town job there. "To their credit, they have done a good job of being a player."

But he repeated an often-heard rap on the county Conservatives: Their endorsements many times have "nothing to do with philosophical viewpoints" and emerge instead from pragmatic decisions about how the endorsement benefits the party.

Consider:

* The party opposes abortion but endorsed in this year's special Assembly race Chris Fahey, a pro-choice Democrat.

* The party opposes same-sex marriage but endorsed Buffalo Democrat Timothy M. Kennedy for the State Senate in 2010 without asking his opinion on the issue. Kennedy voted to legalize gay marriage.

* The party wants government living within its means but endorsed for the State Senate this year former County Legislator Charles Swanick, who strongly pushed to add a penny to the county sales tax during the mid-decade budget meltdown.

Voters unwilling to cast ballots for a candidate on a major party line will vote for them on a minor-party line they identify with, and the Conservative line is a prime example of that. In 2011, the party provided winning margins for, among others, Republican County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs and Lorigo's son Joseph as he captured a County Legislature seat.

In races for Erie County offices last year, the Conservative line drew about 93,000 votes, more than the sum gathered by any other minor party. As a result, the Conservatives' influence exceeds that of a minor party whose enrollees account for just 2 percent of all Erie County voters. Said Lorigo: "When you start to look at those kinds of votes, you begin to see why people seek out this endorsement."

Another major factor: New York's system to allow major party candidates to combine votes with those they tally on minor-party lines. "Fusion voting" -- meant to enhance the role of minor parties -- greases government as needy incumbents grant favors to minor-party leaders so they can dominate the ballot and pad votes.

"A lot of people around the country wish there were more parties," said Haselswerdt, of Canisius College.

"When you see our system, you have more parties. But you don't have more choice."

> 'A no-show job'

A few Executive Committee members seem to have landed government jobs through patronage or partisan appointments. An example is Remy C. Orffeo, the party chairman in Orchard Park, whom the Conservative-backed Town Board named town planning coordinator in January 2006. The approximately $20,000-a-year job supplements Orffeo's income as an Erie Community College professor.

He also collected about $6,000 a year from June 2002 through 2006 as a "community liaison" for then-Assemblyman Paul A. Tokasz, state records show. An Assembly spokesman was unable to answer the question, what does a community liaison do? Orffeo did not return phone message left by The News.

Another example: Raymond F. Gallagher. Gallagher has held several government posts, some of which don't provide a salary, such as ECC trustee. [Son Timothy D. Gallagher, a Conservative committee member, was appointed Orchard Park town prosecutor this year.]

Until 2010, the elder Gallagher worked as a part-time aide to William Stachowski when he was a state senator regularly endorsed by the Conservatives. Gallagher had no regular hours and rarely reported to the office. He resigned from the $50-an-hour job just before Stachowski lost the Conservatives' backing and his bid for re-election.

The Buffalo News at the time asked Susan Lerner, executive director for the government watchdog Common Cause/New York, to comment about Gallagher's unusual terms of employment: 7.5 hours a week, spent outside the office, supposedly analyzing legislation for Stachowski or standing in for him at community events.

"Most people, if you asked them would they like a job in which they rarely have to show up and will get paid $20,000 a year, I think few people would turn it down," Lerner said. "I think they would understand what it is a no-show job."

> The Gorski years

Thankful for the Conservative endorsement that propelled him into his second re-election contest in 1995, then-County Executive Dennis T. Gorski hired the party chairman at the time, William Delmont, as a senior assistant. Lorigo became the chairman, but Delmont remained on the Executive Committee until his death April 28.

Delmont also published weekly newspapers from an office in Lackawanna. In 2010, he sold the Front Page group, which the County Legislature annually deemed its official publication, letting him reap around $3,000 a year running county legal ads.

With the sale of the newspapers, Delmont's long-time assistant at the Front Page, Conservative Party Secretary Beverly Ann Mazur, landed a plum government appointment. The County Legislature unanimously made her its representative to the Western Region Off-Track Betting Corp., a post that offers stipends for each meeting she attends and health insurance.

Among those voting to appoint Mazur to the OTB board was then-County Legislator Kennedy. Kennedy landed the Conservative endorsement as he took Stachowski's State Senate seat as his own in 2010.

While chairman, Delmont did not apologize for the patronage he might dispense. He called it the duty of a party leader: "If we can put a Conservative in an appropriate position -- as long as it doesn't require a job creation or a political commitment -- I'll fight to fill them all with Conservatives."

The Gorski team, as it turns out, did create a job in 1995 for Harold W. "Bud" Schroeder, who then and now holds a party leadership title. Schroeder had worked in the county Social Services Department but became superintendent of the county-owned Grover Cleveland Golf Course when the Legislature re-created some Parks Department jobs at Gorski's request.

> 'Need to be involved'

As for Lorigo, years ago he took work as a court-appointed legal guardian. But the Court of Appeals in 2002 barred political party leaders and lawyers in their firms from serving as court-appointed fiduciaries after a study revealed cronyism and abuses around the state involving connected attorneys. Lorigo says the ban violates his First Amendment rights.

He sees a difference in public employees with jobs granted and controlled by the Republican or Democratic chairmen, and a Conservative Party hierarchy whose members obtain public jobs on their own.

"I am not in control of anybody's job," he said. "You are right, I believe in lesser government. But I certainly believe that we all need to be involved I still come from the generation that believes public service is the honorable way."

In that vein, he says he wants Conservatives placed on special boards or commissions.

Local governments, he said, should "recognize the Conservative Party" and give it influence. So, he reasoned, appointing a Conservative to a planning or zoning board shows the government's "interest in Conservative values."

"Lesser government to me means less government interference in our lives," he adds. "Government is a huge employer in this area, so when somebody works for the highway department or something, yeah they've got the job. But I don't think they have much influence. And I don't think they got it because of politics."

Lorigo forms an amused look when asked about the clout he carries into a courtroom where the judge might covet the Conservative line, or he argues a zoning matter in a town where board members want his party's backing. He thinks suspicions that he often gets his way because of his chairmanship are overblown.

Still, he admits that some law clients come to him thinking that the Conservative Party chairman can solve their problem with a phone call. He says the good fortune that landed upon one client during the Gorski years does not speak to any influence he might hold.

> ECC takes the land

Daniel Rojeck in 1995 wanted to move his Daniel's Chevrolet from 5885 Big Tree Road, near ECC's Orchard Park campus, to the Auto Mall on Southwestern Boulevard. Lorigo was Rojeck's lawyer in the matter. At the same time, ECC figured it was time to move its auto technology program from leased quarters near the Amherst campus to Rojeck's dealership on Big Tree Road. After leasing the Daniel's facility, the county bought it outright for $1.7 million two years later.

Some county lawmakers in 1995 smelled a quid pro quo. Gorski wanted the Conservative ballot line as rivals in his own Democratic Party were making things tough for him.

"Why did I smell a political deal? Because Ralph Lorigo was involved, and the timing was very suspicious," said Gregory B. Olma, a legislator at the time who questioned the arrangement but remembers voting for it. "It was like Justice Potter Stewart described pornography: I know it when I see it.

"Dennis Gorski wanted the Conservative line, and there was high anxiety among his staff. They just wanted to get this done. There was real pressure to make this happen."

In 2000, ECC engaged in short-lived talks to sell the site to the Orchard Park School District for a bus garage. The talks never led to a deal.

Lorigo says ECC's involvement was lined up by the real estate agent on the sale, not by him. Gorski did not return a telephone message seeking comment on the matter. The Conservatives did not endorse Gorski in his first campaign for county executive but backed him for his three re-election efforts. Similarly, the party did not endorse Joel A. Giambra when he ran against Gorski in 1999 but endorsed him for re-election in 2003. Giambra says the party approached his administration for jobs, too.

"We did a lot of them. The beauty was they were all part-time seasonal, or mostly laborers' jobs," said Giambra, who is warring with Lorigo over the party's refusal to again endorse the Giambra-backed Mark Grisanti for re-election to the Senate.

> Cash from candidates

The Conservatives did not endorse Chris Collins for county executive in 2007 -- because of his late entry into the race, Lorigo said -- but endorsed him for his unsuccessful re-election contest last year. During the Collins years, an ECC committee that involved a Collins appointee selected an architectural firm, Kideney Architects, to design a new academic building for the Amherst campus. Kideney President Thomas E. Jaeger also is on the Conservatives' Executive Committee.

County auditors examined the paperwork that backed up the selection and came away unable to prove Kideney had offered the least-expensive proposal among the seven firms deemed as finalists. But the president of the ECC board at the time, Patricia Krezezinski, said auditors had not considered all the information. She said Kideney had novel ideas about how to place the building on the campus and then reroute traffic, distinguishing it among the field.

The firm does not yet have a contract. When the County Legislature's Republican bloc weeks ago tried to lock in the county's $7.5 million contribution to the building, the GOP staff made veiled threats that lawmakers failing to go along jeopardized their Conservative backing, sources there said. The bill's prime sponsor was Legislator Joseph Lorigo.

Political candidates who have, or want, the endorsement usually donate to the party's campaign funds. Since January 2007, active politicians provided about $70,000 of the almost $140,000 donated to the "Real Conservatives" political action committee, one of the party's main campaign accounts in Erie County.

Disgruntled New York City Republicans began the State Conservative Party 50 years ago, in the wake of Richard Nixon's loss to John F. Kennedy. They wanted a party that could push the Republicans' liberal wing in New York, embodied by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, to the right.

Lorigo says that with its endorsements, the Erie County Conservative Party still pushes politicians to the right.

He says the chosen ones needn't agree with the party all the time.

"If we can endorse somebody that's 50, 60 percent, 45 percent ours," he said, meaning they embrace 45 to 60 percent of Conservative stands on the pressing issues of the day, " there are certain things they will not do because they have that endorsement and they will be in jeopardy of losing that endorsement

"So by giving Democrats or people who come and ask for it and profess conservative values an endorsement, we often times, at least in our opinion, bring them over.

"People aren't born Conservatives, we say. They mature into it."

email: mspina@buffnews.com