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Ethics issue cited on Erie County lawmaker’s tie to CWA

Erie County Legislator Patrick B. Burke backed a Legislature proposal to benefit health care workers represented by the Communication Workers of America at the same time he worked as a consultant for the union – and that has Burke under fire from the Legislature’s majority leader.

“Consulting, alone, with a group that is pushing something before a body he is elected to serve brings up a number of questions – ethical, legal,” Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said at last week’s meeting of the Legislature. “At this point, I’m shocked.”

Burke was one of three Democratic co-sponsors for a resolution supporting minimum nurse staffing ratios in acute care facilities and nursing homes. He said that he agreed to co-sponsor the resolution before he was asked to do consulting work with the CWA and that the union does no business with Erie County.

Burke called accusations of unethical behavior “ridiculous and outrageous.”

He also said he had only been a consultant with the CWA for two weeks and that the work he’s doing with the union is related to membership engagement, not nurse staffing issues. He said he did not believe he had a conflict of interest but decided to abstain from a vote on the nurse-staffing proposal to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

“I’ve been pretty upfront with what I’ve done,” he said. “To accuse me of having questionable ethics is personally upsetting.”

The resolution regarding minimum nurse-to-patient staffing ratios passed the Legislature in a 6-4 bipartisan vote last week, with Burke abstaining and having his name pulled as a resolution co-sponsor. A contingent of CWA members appeared to be in attendance at the Legislature meeting and seemed pleased with the outcome.

Burke and others said the measure is only a resolution of support for proposed state legislation and has no direct, immediate impact on the county.

“This is a nonbinding resolution asking the state government to pass a bill that may or may not impact the membership of CWA,” said Jeremy C. Toth, an assistant county attorney who also serves as a legal adviser for the county’s Board of Ethics. “There’s enough separation between what the Legislature did and the direct impact of this that I don’t believe there is a conflict. And if there is, the appropriate step is to recuse yourself from the vote, which is what Legislator Burke did.”

Both sides are asking the ethics panel to consider the matter.

“I’m turning everything I have over to the Board of Ethics so that I can clear my own name and get that piece of paper from them saying that I have done nothing wrong,” Burke said.

He added he has not yet received any compensation from the CWA and feels bad that the organization is being exposed to negative publicity as a result of his brief involvement with it.

Lorigo said the issue is not that Burke chose to recuse himself from the vote, but when he chose to do it. Even though Burke has consulted with the CWA for the last few weeks, he did not disclose that until the day of the vote. Before then, he participated in committee hearings on the issue and continued to “shepherd through” the resolution until the last minute, Lorigo said.

He also questioned whether Burke was not just advising the CWA, but also lobbying other politicians on the union’s behalf.

Staff members for the Legislature’s majority pointed out later that Burke also championed the expansion of affordable, high-speed Internet access, another local priority of the CWA. Burke responded the CWA strongly opposed his resolution for municipal broadband access.

“I’m a lawyer in private practice,” Lorigo said. “I don’t represent clients that deal with Erie County. If someone comes to me with a county issue, I don’t handle it. It’s that simple. … It boggles my mind that we’re even having this conversation – that someone who is elected to this body would be consulting on items that come before the body. This is Albany-style stuff. What are we doing here?”

That angered Burke, who said he gained his seat independently two years ago and worked as a full-time legislator without outside employment for most of that time.

“He’s purposely doing this to try and tie me to Albany?” Burke said. “I’m a guy who ran on his own. I did not go through a political party. I’m a guy who ran independently and worked really hard and got there on my own – unlike some other people.”

That was a reference to Lorigo, the son of Ralph C. Lorigo, chairman of the influential Erie County Conservative Party. Ralph Lorigo specializes in real estate law, represents developers and runs a law firm where his son is employed. Burke said it’s easy for Lorigo to claim higher ground when Lorigo’s firm works with clients whose names are never publicly disclosed.