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Tracing Ward’s path to state judicial bench

If ever a candidate expressed his gratitude to Democratic Headquarters en route to the State Supreme Court bench, Dennis E. Ward may qualify for top honors.

The former Erie County elections commissioner, party treasurer and Amherst Democratic chairman made sure a large portion of the money he raised and donated while running for Supreme Court last fall enriched Democratic Party coffers in preparation for or just as bipartisan backing guaranteed his election.

And while other candidates spent months raising money and campaigning, Ward watched from the Board of Elections sidelines until a deal between Erie County’s Democratic and Republican chairmen conveyed the most coveted election advantage of all – bipartisan nomination.

Campaign finance records show that a sure path to the bench wound through Democratic Headquarters as Ward and his wife – former County Legislator Michele M. Iannello, D-Kenmore – contributed almost $16,000 over the past two years to various Democratic Party accounts from their own funds or from money he raised to a large degree from attorneys after his election was assured.

Nobody suggests Ward did anything illegal, and Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner says donations to party accounts constitute a normal part of the process.

“I was not charging them,” Zellner said of Ward and his wife. “They discussed with me the cost of what we did.

“Of course these folks support the parties that support them,” he added. “That’s the way it is.”

But critics ask whether the new jurist’s reward for fueling the party treasury resulted in the most effortless campaign ever waged by a local judicial candidate. Ward avoided fundraising until after his election was assured, endured no bar association rating process before his nomination, and sat out spring and summer campaigning.

It all leads James J. Sample, an associate professor at Long Island’s Hofstra Law School and a longtime critic of the state’s judicial nominating system, to reiterate that “legal acumen means nothing compared to political patronage” in determining who sits on New York’s top trial bench.

“In other states, the typical fear of judicial elections is contributions from litigants to candidates,” he said. “In New York, the problem is the candidates themselves have to ante up to become judges.”

Ward said judicial ethics prohibit him from commenting on his campaign. And officials of an advisory committee affiliated with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct did not respond to inquiries about Ward’s ability to answer such questions.

Still, a long history of party connections paved the way to his nomination. The connections include:

• As elections commissioner – considered the county’s top patronage post that is closely aligned with the party chairman – Ward granted a $13,000 raise on Sept. 22 to Deputy Elections Commissioner Arthur O. Eve Jr. Later that evening, Eve and other members of his Unity political group joined in the Democratic judicial nominating convention vote to guarantee Ward’s election.

• Though Eve’s raise was supposed to reflect his duties as interim commissioner, former Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan never rescinded it when he succeeded Ward at the Board of Elections’ top post. Ward and Lenihan are longtime allies.

• As elections commissioner, Ward was never considered an official candidate and was spared the test of rating by the Erie County Bar Association until after his cross-endorsed nomination and his election was assured. The bar association rated him “qualified,” the third-highest of its ratings behind “well qualified” and “outstanding,” and the lowest of the four cross-endorsed candidates.

Citing “confidentiality,” bar association officials would not discuss the unique circumstances of Ward’s post-nomination rating.

• While guaranteed election to a 14-year term paying $174,000 annually because of the cross-endorsement, Ward still staged a fundraiser Oct. 7 that included many lawyers who would later appear before him, although he did limit donations to $100.

• The proceeds from the fundraiser partially covered a $15,000 loan Ward and his wife gave his campaign as well as their contributions to the Democratic Party, including to an obscure internal account labeled “Housekeeping” for headquarters expenses. The Wards waited until Jan. 15 to report their August contributions to the Housekeeping account.

• Though Ward contributed nominally to the Erie County Republican Party, his election resulted from Zellner’s agreement with his GOP counterpart – Nicholas A. Langworthy – on two Democratic and two Republican cross-endorsed candidates.

• In another example of his close party connections, Iannello’s son – Jordan M. Grimaldi – was hired at the patronage-laden Erie County Water Authority at $46,000 annually in June 2013.

Connections denied

Ward was long considered the front runner for the Democratic judicial nod, Zellner acknowledged, even though he officially sat out the early campaign scrutiny experienced by other candidates. But Zellner denied any connection between Ward’s contributions and the cross-endorsement, pointing out that several judicial hopefuls from both parties contributed to party organizations throughout the eight-county 8th Judicial District – just as they always have.

No quid pro quo was involved, the chairman emphasized, though he said candidates are encouraged to bear a portion of election expenses.

Zellner acknowledged that Ward’s nomination was a priority for 2014.

“Everyone knew he might be interested in becoming a Supreme Court judge and that someday I would be interested in that and making it happen,” the chairman said. “Of course, he would go out of his way to support us before and after.”

To be sure, Ward is no stranger to Erie County Democratic politics through his many party posts and a long history of donating to the party. Last year, he denied any connection between the raise he gave Eve and the supporting votes he received the same day at the judicial nominating convention.

“There was no quid pro quo,” Ward told The Buffalo News at the time. “I knew 80 to 85 percent of the delegates in that room, most for more than 10 years. It was not hard for them to vote for me.”

High court ruling

The News examined the practice of charging judicial candidates as much as $7,500 for “expenses” in a 2002 series, “Courting Big Money.” The series highlighted political party bosses’ control over Supreme Court nominations, pointing out the escalating frequency of cross-endorsements that effectively shut out voters because there was seldom a choice for them on the ballot.

Even when the system did produce a choice of candidates, they were selected by nominating conventions comprising delegates hand-picked by party bosses.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School challenged the constitutionality of the state’s judicial nominating conventions in 2006, citing The News stories as an example of party control of the process. And U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn declared unconstitutional New York’s judicial nominating system in 2006 – a ruling upheld by a federal appellate court.

But the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned those decisions in 2008, declaring the system may not prove ideal but was not unconstitutional.

In a concurring side opinion accompanying the high court’s decision, Justice John Paul Stevens said the ruling should not be read as endorsing New York’s judicial conventions or disagreeing with Gleeson’s original ruling.

“I recall my esteemed former colleague, Thurgood Marshall, remarking on numerous occasions,” Stevens wrote, “the Constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws.”

Power of party leaders

Only New York State relies on a judicial nominating convention system that he still maintains is controlled by party leaders, said Sample, part of the Brennan Center team who brought the suit.

“In Staten Island, it’s through Republican Headquarters,” he said. “And the Democratic Party leader in Erie County has every bit the power the bosses had in Tammany Hall decades ago.”

Sample noted that Albany legislators seriously explored reform of the system following Gleeson’s original ruling several years ago, but all that died with the Supreme Court decision. Because the political parties still exercise such control over the system, he now doubts it will ever change.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com