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Sandonato receives public defender job as Dems fume

LOCKPORT – Former Niagara County legislator Vincent M. Sandonato, the chairman of the Niagara Falls Republican Committee, will start work as an assistant public defender Monday.

County Public Defender David J. Farrugia, a Lockport Republican, confirmed the hiring of Sandonato, who was sworn in as an attorney on Jan. 13, for the $40,659-a-year part-time job.

Democratic legislators asked about Sandonato’s hiring at Tuesday’s Legislature meeting, only to be told that no one in the Republican majority or the administration had any information on that.

“It’s typical of what we have to go through as legislators,” said Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls. “They act like they don’t know what’s going on, and they know exactly what’s going on. It’s a political patronage mill for the Republican Party.”

Farrugia, who posted the job for applicants, an apparently unprecedented move, said he interviewed a couple of other lawyers. He said Sandonato will replace Luke D. Brown, who resigned to become assistant city attorney in North Tonawanda.

Virtuoso blasted Sandonato’s lack of experience. “What sort of expertise can he possibly offer the clients?” Virtuoso asked. “This shows that it’s just a political patronage position.”

Farrugia said Sandonato will start out by working in Wheatfield Town Court, as well as handling parole hearings and some felonies in County Court.

When it was pointed that Sandonato has almost no experience, Farrugia replied, “Who did? That’s something you learn as you go.”

Sandonato said, “Well, I’m thankful to have passed the New York State bar exam on my first try, which makes me qualified for such opportunities. I’m excited to work with a group of great attorneys who share a passion to advocate for their clients.”

County GOP Chairman Scott P. Kiedrowski said, “If you look at public defenders over the last 25 or 30 years, you’ll find people who got there in various ways, members of both parties.” He said he never talked to Sandonato about the position.

Virtuoso said, “It shows someone else is in charge of county government, and they’ll show their face again next week, when we hire Mr. (Richard E.) Updegrove, the least qualified of the three candidates for county manager.”

Updegrove, the leader of the GOP Legislature majority until Dec. 31, was one of three candidates interviewed last week. The search committee is to vote next week, although Virtuoso has insisted from the start that the fix is in and Updegrove will get the job to succeed the retiring Jeffrey M. Glatz.

Updegrove didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Virtuoso said both hirings show the need for an amendment to the county Code of Ethics barring former legislators from taking county jobs for at least two years after leaving office. The Republicans voted that down in committee, but they took over a second paragraph barring ex-legislators from lobbying the county for two years. A public hearing on that provision is set for March 22.