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Ex-Ranzenhofer aide files ethics complaint over firing

A woman fired by State Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer has filed a formal ethics complaint against the Amherst Republican, alleging she lost her job after lending her support to the congressional campaign of David Bellavia.

In a sworn statement provided to the state's Joint Commission on Public Ethics, Michelle McCulloch, of Attica, accused Ranzenhofer of having "coerced" his staff to gather ballot petitions for former Erie County Executive Chris Collins, Bellavia's campaign foe, for the GOP congressional primary election later this month.

"He has obstructed the fair and due process of elections and violated not only the integrity of his staff but the public trust," McCulloch said in a filing with the agency that has jurisdiction over legislative ethics matters. The sworn complaint and statement were obtained by The Buffalo News.

McCulloch, 45, previously had gone public with her accusation that she was fired April 30 -- after nearly a year on the senator's staff -- for supporting Bellavia in her role as a Wyoming County Republican Party committeewoman. She also had been a staffer for former Reps. Thomas Reynolds, R-Clarence, and Christopher Lee, R-Amherst.

Ranzenhofer, who is up for re-election this year, in the past declined to discuss the specifics of McCulloch's departure, saying that she knows why she was fired and that it was a "personnel decision."

The senator said Monday he found it "interesting" that a reporter had learned about the ethics complaint before Ranzenhofer has seen it. "I don't comment about personnel matters," he said. He later said he would "fully cooperate" if an ethics probe was begun.

Unlike much of the state's unionized workforce, legislative employees are politically appointed and are considered "at-will" staff members who serve at the pleasure of their employers.

In an interview Monday, McCulloch said that her ethics filing against Ranzenhofer was a difficult decision but that she was compelled to speak out because of what she said were inappropriate actions by the senator.

"It was a hard decision. My husband and I were and are extremely worried about retribution," she said.

In March, McCulloch said, Ranzenhofer and one of his aides, Jon McNulty, "made it clear" to members of the senator's staff that they were to help gather petitions to get Collins on the congressional ballot.

"I believed there was no question as to whether I had a choice in this directive," she said in her sworn statement. She said staff members were told to use personal or comp time to gather the petition signatures.

McCulloch said Ralph Mohr, the Republican commissioner on the Erie County Board of Elections and a longtime GOP fixture, came to Ranzenhofer's legislative offices with petition signature forms for the Collins campaign.

She said she indicated to McNulty that she did not wish to help the Collins effort. She said McNulty reminded her that Michael Hook, a Washington political consultant who works for Ranzenhofer, also is with the Collins campaign and that she was to "respect that relationship."

She said she collected signatures for Collins for about an hour. "I did this because I felt I had no choice," she wrote. She said it was "the same requirement forced" upon Ranzenhofer staffers in 2011 on behalf of Collins' failed bid for re-election as county executive.

But her ties with the Wyoming County Republican Party, which endorsed Bellavia, meant she was getting politically close to Collins' foe. McCulloch said she also helped gather ballot signatures for Bellavia.

By mid-April, McCulloch said, she had joined Bellavia's steering committee, a move that drew emails by Erie County GOP Chairman Nicholas Langworthy questioning the decision, according to her submission to the ethics agency in Albany. Her move set off a flurry of activity by angry legislative and political advisers to Ranzenhofer, her complaint said.

A complaint to the ethics agency does not mean a formal investigation will commence. A spokesman for the agency was not immediately available to comment Monday.