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Source of campaign donations is at issue in Falls Council race

NIAGARA FALLS – Charles A. Walker is running for re-election to the City Council, but for months the public has had no idea where the Democratic incumbent’s campaign money is coming from because his campaign has failed to file reports with the State Board of Elections since January.

For Republican challenger Vincent M. Sandonato, there are no individual donors because he hasn’t asked for any. Every dollar spent to support his campaign is coming from the Niagara County and state Republican parties.

With the general election less than a week away, the six-way race for three Council seats has seen campaign donations featuring a wide range of political, business and union interests. Walker had little to say about his failure to submit required information about campaign contributions, while Sandonato defended his campaign-funding strategy. And records show that the other four candidates all have strong union support.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Walker had not submitted six of seven disclosure reports required by the State Board of Elections this year – reports which detail who has made donations and how money is spent – to the State Board of Elections’ website.

Early last week, Walker told The Buffalo News he would check with the two people helping to manage his campaign about the unfiled paperwork.

Walker, manager of community outreach at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, late Tuesday afternoon sent copies of donors’ checks to a News reporter in order to show where the money’s coming from. A reporter also received an emailed copy of a new report sent to the state.

According to the copies of the checks, Walker’s top donors over the past several months include the Niagara Falls Fire Officers political action committee ($1,250), Niagara Falls Firefighters PAC ($1,250), International Union of Operating Engineers Local 463 PAC ($1,000) and Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 22 ($500).

Walker’s campaign also received $1,200 from the Niagara County Democratic Committee, according to notes on some of the photocopied pages of checks.

Walker’s last campaign filing before Wednesday was a “no activity” statement in January, a filing made when there has been no spending or donations received by a campaign account.

Sandonato, a former county legislator who is currently in law school, has had campaign mailings – of which there have been five so far – paid for by the state Republican Committee, as well as lawn signs, palm cards and robo calls paid for by county Republicans, he said.

Sandonato said he will be able to maintain independence despite being solely supported financially by the county and state committees.

“Other candidates are funded by PACs, county parties, unions, developers, nondevelopers ... So I guess if they can remain neutral to special interests, why is it assumed I can’t?” Sandonato said.

Sandonato claims he has stood up and voted independently of the Republican party before.

As a legislator, Sandonato voted against the appointment of a Town of Lockport resident to the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency that his colleagues had favored because he had wanted to see someone from Niagara Falls take the seat.

He said he openly supported Democrat John G. Accardo’s run for Falls mayor in 2011 instead of the GOP-backed Johnny G. Destino.

Sandonato said he helped expand a county program that offers tax breaks in the Buffalo Avenue area of the Falls. However, according to a spokesperson for the county’s Economic Development Department, that program has never granted incentives to any businesses in that area. Only one business in the city has been accepted into the program as a whole, but it’s located on Niagara Street and hasn’t started collecting benefits because the project hasn’t started yet.

When asked about the lack of activity in the program, Sandonato blamed the lack of participation on poor economic conditions, a shrunken economic development office at the city level, as well as business owners being reluctant because of taxes in the area.

He said it also took a bipartisan effort to get the program expanded.

Sandonato said he helped found a bipartisan coalition of city- and county-level elected officials who represented Niagara Falls. It last met in the summer of 2011.

Here’s a look at some of the top campaign donors to the rest of the field during this election cycle, according to their reports to the state Board of Elections:

• Democrat incumbent Kristen M. Grandinetti, a prekindergarten teacher in the city, has received $1,000 campaign donations from Mark Hamister, the Women’s TAP Fund, businessman Jerome Williams and Gail Grandinetti of Daly City, Calif.

Grandinetti was one of the three Council members who voted in support of the development deal between the city and Hamister for 310 Rainbow.

She has also received $2,300 from the Niagara Falls Firefighter PAC; $1,250 from the Niagara Falls Fire Officers PAC; $500 from Merani Holdings; $500 from Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 22; and $500 in three donations from LLCs controlled by Ellicott Development.

Merani Holdings is a Canadian hotel group that owns the Four Points by Sheraton and Holiday Inn on Buffalo Avenue, as well as the former Fallside Hotel property on Buffalo Avenue. The Women’s TAP Fund is a Buffalo-based political action committee that supports “qualified pro-choice women” running for public offices, according to its website.

• Among incumbent Samuel F. Fruscione’s largest campaign donors is JD Gifts LLC, a company run by the Guido family, which operates a souvenir shop next to the Hard Rock Cafe on O’Laughlin Drive. It gave Fruscione a total of $2,000.

Fruscione, who is running on the Conservative and Independence lines and is the only one of seven candidates on the ballot without a major party line, received $1,250 from Laborers Local 91 on Oct 3. He also has received $1,000 from Indian Ocean LLC, which lists the same address as the Econolodge on Rainbow Boulevard. Council colleague Robert A. Anderson Jr. gave Fruscione $500 on Oct. 8.

Fruscione, who finished fourth in September’s Democratic primary, is dean of students at Abate Elementary School.

• Republican newcomer Russell F. Vesci’s biggest campaign donors include Laborers Local 91, which has given $1,625; United Steel Workers, which gave $300; as well as Niagara Falls Redevelopment, which donated $250.

Vesci is a sewage plant maintenance worker for the Niagara Falls Water Board.

• Democratic newcomer Andrew P. Touma has loaned his campaign about $5,900 so far, and he noted his campaign is obviously important to him.

“I thought it was important that my wife and I invest in this,” Touma said.

His largest donors include Merani Holdings LLC, which donated $1,000 in July. Touma has also received $1,250 from the Niagara Falls Firefighter PAC; $1,050 from National Vacuum Corp.; $1,000 from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 463 PAC; $500 from Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 22; and $500 from F. Thomas Bellonte of Lewiston.

Touma is dean of students at LaSalle Preparatory School.

Review a live blog from Wednesday night’s candidates forum at for who gave money to candidates in your town in a database on the Politics Now blog on email:

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