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Years-long battle on sign ordinance brings 10 days in jail for Lockport auto repair shop owner

TOWN OF LOCKPORT – Lockport auto repair shop owner David J. Mongielo, who has faced a years-long battle over a sign ordinance violation and a subsequent sign charge that allegedly violated the terms of a conditional discharge, was sentenced to 10 days in Niagara County Jail by Town Justice Leonard Tilney Jr. on Tuesday.

Mongielo was not led out in handcuffs. Instead, he was allowed to get his family and business affairs in order and told to report to jail at 4 p.m. today. In the meantime, Mongielo’s attorney, Frank T. Housh, said he would seek a stay of the sentencing.

Tilney also dismissed the subsequent violation and planned jury trial, saying he would “not inconvenience 50 or so citizens” because he would not incarcerate Mongielo again, even if he were found guilty.

Housh called the authority of the judge to dismiss the charges beyond the scope of Town Court and said Mongielo was entitled to a trial by jury. He called the whole case “a political witch hunt” and “a travesty.”

“David Mongielo is the only person to be prosecuted by this sign ordinance,” Housh said. “The previous judge imposed the maximum sentence and the maximum fine.”

Housh filed a motion prior to the court proceeding, accusing Tilney of bias and asking him to recuse himself, but Tilney summarily dismissed the motion, calling it “opinion rather than fact” and refused to discuss it further in court.

Tilney took over the case when Town Justice Raymond E. Schilling, who has been dealing with the case since 2010, retired at the end of December.

In the motion, Housh called for Tilney to recuse himself because of a political rivalry that is sufficient to create the appearance of impropriety and also submitted a statement from former Somerset Town Justice Jeffrey P. Wick, who testified that Tilney was aggressively hostile to Mongielo and not fair and impartial. Wick left the bench in 2006 under a cloud of legal issues after he pleaded guilty to harassing his wife in 2005. He received a conditional discharge but was back in court in 2012.

In 2013, he pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child and second-degree criminal contempt. He told the court he suffered from bipolar disorder and was seeking treatment. Wick was sentenced in March to three years’ probation.

The twist Tuesday was one of many that has seen Mongielo appearing in and out of court in the Town of Lockport, Niagara County and State Supreme courts, as well as in a City of Lockport courtroom, since August 2011.

The case in the Town of Lockport dates from 2010, when Mongielo was accused of violating the town’s sign ordinance on three separate occasions. The law bans electronic signs that change messages or formats more than once every 10 minutes. Mongielo was fined and granted a conditional discharge and a suspended sentence of 15 days in 2010, but in August 2011 – a month before the conditional discharge would have expired – he was accused of violating the sign law again, as well as the conditional discharge when he advertised a fundraiser on the sign.

Tilney said that in Schillings’ decision, Mongielo was bound by the original sentence. He said he gave Mongielo a break by going down to 10 days, rather than 15, and said to Mongielo, “The last thing I want to do is put anybody in jail.”

Tilney denied any accusations that politics were an issue, saying he sought the endorsement of both major parties.

Mongielo, who has twice run for town supervisor and fought the charges at every turn, has accused political foes of intentionally going after him. He was originally convicted of the second offense in a non jury trial before Schilling, but Mongielo took the case to Niagara County Court, where Judge Matthew J. Murphy III overturned the conviction in September 2012 and said he was entitled to a jury trial.

In the meantime, Mongielo is still facing charges in Lockport City Court for an arrest at a traffic checkpoint on Lincoln Avenue on June 27. Mongielo was ordered out of his car and thrown to the pavement by officers who booked him on a variety of charges, including resisting arrest and using a cellphone while driving.