When Erie County Democratic leaders interview four candidates for district attorney on Monday, the name of one person no longer seeking the office is expected to dominate the session. That would be Frank A. Sedita III.
That’s because party leaders must strategize whether to link their next candidate to the former district attorney, or seek a new direction.
“The clear question is, do we want to continue the Sedita legacy or do we change course?” said Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner. “That’s what keeps coming up.”
Three candidates who have expressed interest – Michael J. Flaherty Jr., John J. Flynn Jr., and Mark A. Sacha – have all indicated various ways they differ from Sedita, who held the post through seven years of controversy before his noncontested election to State Supreme Court last November.
A fourth candidate, Molly J. Musarra, will also appear before the party’s Executive Committee, Zellner said.
Following the Monday meeting, the chairman said he will assemble the Executive Committee for a formal endorsement, which is expected to provide a major advantage for any resulting Democratic primary.
Flaherty, the acting district attorney who served as Sedita’s top assistant, emphasized his intention to create a Public Integrity Unit to prosecute corruption. It marks one of several ways Flaherty has moved to distance himself from his former boss, after Sedita drew criticism for allegedly shying away from prosecuting crimes like election law violations.
In addition, The Buffalo News reported that Flaherty will re-examine the fatal hit-and-run in Evans that took the life of Barry T. Moss in 2013.
The News has also reported that a senior Sedita associate asked an Erie County grand jury to reverse its vote to indict Gabriele P. Ballowe (whose car police determined hit Moss) for drunk driving in connection with the incident because Sedita believed there was not enough evidence to convict her.
Flaherty declined to comment when The News asked if he was the Sedita associate who persuaded the grand jury to change its vote, indicating he could not discuss details of a grand jury proceeding.
But it is also anticipated that other Democrats competing in a district attorney primary will try to link Flaherty to Sedita.
“Mike Flaherty is Frank Sedita,” Flynn said earlier this month, “even as he tries to distance himself from Frank Sedita.”
And Sacha, who served 22 years as a top prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office, was fired in 2009 for publicly charging that Sedita and predecessor Frank J. Clark issued a pass to former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon over myriad election law violations because of his political power.
Sacha was the only Western New Yorker to testify before the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, and then complained to the Erie County Board of Elections about a political committee linked to Pigeon that was active in the 2013 Democratic primary. The committee and Pigeon are now under investigation by the state attorney general, the State Police and the FBI.
Though Sedita was re-elected as district attorney in 2012 with bipartisan backing from Democrats and Republicans, Zellner said Wednesday he is not interested in such an arrangement this year. In fact, he said he will not consider a Democratic candidate who is also seeking GOP support.
“I would discourage that, because we will not support someone who seeks the Republican line,” Zellner said. “If they want that line, the question is why do they want ours.”
Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, meanwhile, said he continues to rely on a panel headed by former State Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco to find a candidate to face the Democratic nominee. Though prospects would appear grim for a Republican in heavily Democratic Erie County – especially in a presidential election year marked by heavy turnout – Langworthy said he remains confident the GOP will field a top-notch candidate.
“We’re meeting with people,” he said, “and have several very interesting candidates.”