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Townsend, Viola step forward in Niagara County DA race

LOCKPORT – Two prominent Democratic defense attorneys in Niagara County – Joseph F. Townsend and Robert Viola – are interested in becoming district attorney.

However, neither man wants to be appointed to the position by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has the authority to fill the post from which Republican Michael J. Violante resigned March 21. Both are interested in running in this fall’s election, however.

County Democratic Chairman Nicholas J. Forster said, “We’re going to sit down and discuss it with both of them. We’ll look at the record, their electability.”

Either – or both – presumably would have to run in a Democratic primary against Caroline A. Wojtaszek, a former assistant DA who has no connection to party headquarters. She is the wife of former county Republican chairman Henry F. Wojtaszek, but since she has never changed her party affiliation, she could enter the Democratic primary without party permission simply by filing valid nominating petitions this summer.

“There’s been discussions between Bob and myself,” Townsend said. “We haven’t decided if we want to square off.”

Viola isn’t committed to running. “I’m still trying to sort our whether it’s something I really want to do. Does it make sense at this point? I don’t know the answer to that yet,” he said.

It’s anticipated that Wojtaszek could be entered on the Republican side, too. The county Independence Party already has endorsed her.

Forster said he doesn’t know whether Viola, Townsend or both would be submitted to Cuomo’s office for vetting for a possible appointment. Besides the Niagara opening, there also are vacant DA slots in Erie and Chautauqua counties, but Cuomo so far hasn’t moved to fill them.

Townsend, a Cambria resident with a law practice in Lockport, explained why he doesn’t want the temporary appointment as DA. “An appointment would create a situation where I would have to suspend my law practice. I am a sole practitioner,” he said.

Townsend said if he has to leave his clients looking for new lawyers, he wants time to prepare for that possibility. So does Viola, who is a partner in a Niagara Falls law firm, Viola, Cummings and Lindsay. He says he wants to confer with his law partners, one of whom is out of the country.

“The appointment would be too disruptive. It’s just not something I could do,” Viola said. “I can’t imagine any circumstance where it would make sense to do that.”

Townsend, 52, served as the county’s public defender in 2002-03. Among the attorneys on his staff there was Viola, 67, of Lewiston, who stepped down a couple of years ago after a long career as a part-time assistant public defender.

Townsend said, “In my opinion, of the candidates who have come forward or been bantered about, I am the only one who has experience in the administrative end of this type of position,” Townsend said. “I believe I have an extensive amount of criminal law experience, having been in practice for 27 years. Someone needs to come forward and take the reins of an office that has unfortunately had some major problems recently.”

Viola said, “There’s things that I think would be nice assets to bring, including the defense lawyers’ playbook. But at this point, I’ve got to get through a lot of issues. I’ll probably sort that out in the next few weeks.”

He said he was “heartened” that Democrats are coming forward for the job.