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Absentee voter mum as she hires attorney in Niagara County primary probe

NIAGARA FALLS – The voter whose absentee ballot in a Conservative Party primary sparked Niagara County’s latest political flap has hired an attorney and is refusing to talk to criminal investigators, according to Sheriff James R. Voutour.

The Town of Niagara woman told The Buffalo News on Friday that she had hired Buffalo attorney Joseph LaTona but had yet to meet with him.

Voutour said the case was assigned to an investigator Tuesday, after a Republican letter requesting the probe arrived at his office.

Interviews began immediately, the sheriff said, but by Friday, the probe “has stopped for now, as the victim retained an attorney and won’t speak to us.”

The woman said Sept. 12 that she was recruited by Johnny G. Destino, a Niagara Falls attorney, to cast an absentee ballot in the Sept. 10 primary. Two days later, County Legislator Jason A. Zona, a Niagara Falls Democrat, came to her home to help her fill out the ballot, instructing her to write in his name for 5th District legislator in the Conservative primary.

However, she decided that she shouldn’t have had an absentee ballot and went to her local polling place on Primary Day to vote for Zona’s opponent, former Legislator Giulio G. Colangelo.

By doing so, she made the absentee ballot legally invalid. Colangelo, a member of the Independence Party running with Republican backing, held onto the Conservative line in the primary.

The woman told her story to poll workers, and the Republican leader in Niagara Falls, Patricia J. Castillo, issued a news release demanding a criminal investigation of Zona and Destino.

Destino asserted that he never went to the woman’s apartment, although his name is on her absentee ballot application as the delivery man. It said the woman needed an absentee ballot because of “temporary illness or physical disability.”

Voutour would not comment when asked if the voter herself might be a subject of the probe.

Meanwhile, the Republicans, who have made beating Zona one of their top priorities this election season, piled on him.

Wednesday, county GOP Chairman Scott P. Kiedrowski announced that he had sent letters to the state Board of Elections and the Attorney General’s Office, asking for them to investigate Zona and Destino, too.

During Tuesday’s County Legislature meeting, Legislator Michael A. Hill, R-Hartland, took the floor to threaten Zona with a board of inquiry for harming what Hill called “the sanctity of elections.”

“I’m trying to see if there’s any interest in doing it,” Hill said after the meeting. “There needs to be some further investigation. I’d like to see if there’s going to be any investigation from law enforcement.”

Zona said nothing at the meeting and did not return a call seeking comment Friday.