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Democrats weigh criminal past of two chairman candidates

One candidate for chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party spent two months in jail for invading the home of his then father-in-law.
Another's record includes a conviction for violating - of all things - election law.
Still another has never run afoul of the law, but causes one opponent to raise major questions about conflict of interest.
About 1,600 Democratic committee members will evaluate an eclectic and colorful trio when they gather Saturday morning at the Hearthstone Manor in Depew to choose a successor for departing Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan. The candidates are Cheektowaga Chairman Frank C. Max Jr., who has serious legal trouble in his background; attorney Marc C. Panepinto, who mishandled election petitions more than a decade ago; and County Legislature Chief of Staff Jeremy J. Zellner, who some critics say could not both head the party and do his current job.
And since Saturday's vote will be secret, deals hammered out by various factions may not guide every committee member when ballots are marked in private. That's why many party stalwarts expect no consensus to develop, predicting that the post-Lenihan era may be marked by new confusion and uncertainty.
"It's a wide-open process," Panepinto said. "The governor has not endorsed anybody, and the county executive has not endorsed anybody. It's just every man out there lining up his votes."
As the delegates at Saturday's meeting sift through the pasts of the three candidates, Max's record is sure to draw the most scrutiny. He was convicted in 1981 of misdemeanor criminal mischief and misdemeanor criminal trespass, according to Buffalo City Court records.
In the complaint, Max's former father-in-law said the candidate broke a screen door of his house with intent to harass, and threatened to hurt him and his wife and damage his car.
"I'm gonna destroy you," the father-in-law quoted Max as saying in the complaint.
A separate charge, also from September 1981, said he forcibly entered the home of the complaining witness.
Max, 60, acknowledges he served two months in jail for the crimes. But now he says those incidents occurred long ago in his past, stemming from a messy divorce and custody battle that should be taken into consideration.
Though the court complaint originated with his father-in-law, Max said the incident centered on a man with whom his then-wife was "cheating."
"I punched the guy out," he said. "I had enough of him during the divorce."
Max, whom several sources say has been championed for the chairmanship in recent weeks by Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy, has encountered other problems in his career. He was fired by the Erie County Water Authority (composed of two Democratic commissioners and a Republican) in 1987 for "misconduct and incompetence," though a hearing officer had recommended he be reinstated after a 17-month suspension. "Anybody who understands the Water Authority would understand," he said, calling the matter "nonsense" and "political."
Max later lost re-election as president of the authority's blue-collar union, with supporters saying at the time that his original suspension stemmed from his aggressive and often militant leadership, while critics said his methods included intimidation.
Max said the incidents are so far in his past that he should be judged differently now. He points to several suburban towns and pockets of city support, and claims to have the best ability to unify the traditionally fractured party.
"I'm running for chairman, not pope," Max said.
He challenged Lenihan for the chairmanship in 2008, only to drop out just before the reorganization meeting.
Panepinto, 47, makes no excuses for his 2001 misdemeanor violation of election law for collecting fraudulent voter signatures on designating petitions.
"It was a mistake in 2001," he said. "I signed off on the bottom, and as a result, I got clipped."
Panepinto said the conviction has been used against him extensively during his campaign for the chairmanship, and contributed to his decision to end exploring a challenge to State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, earlier this year - even after raising $55,000 for the effort.
Now he says he is running on the premise that as a trial lawyer, there is no other candidate "who can make the case better."
Panepinto, husband of State Supreme Court Justice Catherine Nugent Panepinto, also points to his West Side "base," originating with the organization of former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt. And he welcomes the secret ballot.
"You get in the voting booth and vote the way you choose," he said. "That's part of the reforms we made to take the pressure off and let people vote."
At 34, Zellner would emerge as the youngest Democratic chairman since Joseph F. Crangle assumed the party helm at 33 in 1965. While some say he has ruffled feathers among some Democrats in County Hall, he is hobbled by several other concerns, including his past history as executive director of the Erie County Democratic Party under Lenihan.
Some point out that after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's political forces helped push out Lenihan, they would not stand for his former right-hand man to succeed him.
But Zellner stresses he is starting out as his own man, and that he is willing to work with anyone - including Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, a longtime Lenihan foe.
"I can lay all those things aside," he said. "I would be open to supporting the mayor if that's what the committeemen in the city want to do."
Panepinto, meanwhile, questions how Zellner can function in his $79,577 position in the Legislature and be chairman at the same time. He also questions Zellner's ability to maintain independence when he is beholden to his bosses in the Legislature.
"It's absolutely impossible to manage the expectations of the six people in the majority and be county chair," he said, adding that Brown or County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz will rank lower on his importance scale than the county legislators who determine his employment.
"It's an implicit conflict of interest that Jeremy has not been willing to deal with," Panepinto said. "What if someone in the Legislature doesn't get the endorsement next year?"
Panepinto said Zellner cannot give up his county job because he needs the salary and insurance.
Zellner says he fails to recognize the conflict, but also said he would be willing to leave County Hall even if few expect the party to match his current salary.
He said he hopes to work out an arrangement in which he might work a shift of 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the Legislature, then work in party headquarters in the afternoon and on weekends, or he would consider part-time work for the county.
"We're going to see what happens," Zellner said.