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New acting DA Flaherty promises to be aggressive prosecutor

One of the first things Michael J. Flaherty Jr. did Monday morning as Erie County’s acting district attorney was assign an assistant DA to “take a fresh look” at one of the cold cases that his predecessor didn’t prosecute.

Flaherty wouldn’t say which case.

“I am by nature more aggressive (as a prosecutor),” the new DA said during a morning press conference to introduce himself.

Critics of former District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III had accused him of “cherry-picking” cases and only prosecuting those that were “slam-dunks.” Sedita countered that his office successfully prosecuted tens of thousands of cases during his tenure and should not be defined by three or four cases in which he felt the evidence would not support convictions.

Flaherty, who worked in the DA’s office from 1993-2005, was rehired by Sedita and served as his first assistant district attorney. Flaherty credits his former boss with giving him enough responsibility to hit the ground running now that he has the top job. Sedita was elected as a State Supreme Court justice in November. The district attorney position will be on the November ballot and Flaherty said he plans to seek the job permanently.

“Frank hired me. He is a friend. He will be an outstanding jurist. But I am not Frank Sedita,” Flaherty said. “Frank Sedita did a lot. We will do better.”

Flaherty noted that he never expected to see his name on the office door (it has already replaced Sedita’s) but added, “Now that I have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I intend to make the most of it.”

He is starting with an office reorganization that will target his priorities: He has assigned a stand-alone Narcotics Unit to focus on the opiate epidemic that claimed close to 150 lives in Erie County before the end of 2015. He said this will give local law enforcement agencies direct access to the right people in the DA’s office for drug investigations, search warrants and other assistance.

Flaherty also formed a Public Integrity Unit, to be headed by ADA Paul E. Bonanno as chief of a new Special Investigations Bureau.

“We’ll look at anything that involves a violation of the public trust,” he said. “Not all (corruption) crimes are federal crimes.”

He also plans to strengthen prosecution of domestic violence cases “with zero tolerance for crime that rips families apart.”

Flaherty said he expects to continue Sedita’s tough policy against post-indictment plea deals and on prosecuting gun crimes, while acknowledging that he could be more flexible in individual cases if the evidence merits it.

“I think the way we have treated these cases is effective, but my personality and my predecessor’s are different,” he said.

Flaherty’s new leadership team includes Donna A. Milling as his first assistant district attorney and chief ethics officer. Milling was chief of the Appeals Bureau in Sedita’s office and in 2014 received the Prosecutor of the Year, Appellate Advocacy Award from the New York Prosecutors Training Institute. She also is the first woman of color to hold the second-in-charge position. Michael J. Hillery is taking over the Appeals Bureau post.

Colleen Curtin Gable will be the first woman to head the DA’s Homicide Bureau, after working as a homicide prosecutor with Sedita since 2009 and with the DA’s office since 1999.

Christopher J. Belling, a longtime homicide prosecutor, forensics trainer and former attorney with the New York Prosecutors Training Institute, is now chief trial counsel.

Mara L. McCabe will head the busy Buffalo City Court Bureau, Justin T. Wallens is the new chief of the Animal Cruelty Unit, and Lynette M. Reda, who has handled numerous sexual assault cases in more than 20 years with the DA’s office, was named chief of the Domestic Violence Bureau.