The gloves came off fast.
With three Democrats and one Republican-endorsed Conservative vying for the Erie County district attorney’s seat, Thursday night’s debate was one of attack and defense, with two Democratic challengers hammering acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. on everything from office staff diversity to allegations of political expediency over justice.
The name of Barry Moss came up. As did that of Steve Pigeon.
Mark Sacha, a former Assistant District Attorney, opened by accusing Flaherty of a poor investigation of homicide cases, and a variety of other political misdeeds, including turning a blind eye to misdeeds by political operative Steve Pigeon. A moderator gave Flaherty 30 seconds to respond.
“Just 30 seconds?” asked Flaherty, drawing chuckles from the audience.
During the 1½-hour debate, sponsored by the Buffalo Association of Black Journalists, Flaherty did his best to defend the work of his office but was repeatedly put in the hot seat by challengers – who unflatteringly tied him to his former boss and predecessor, Frank A. Sedita III.
This year’s race pits Flaherty, the acting district attorney, against Democratic challengers John J. Flynn Jr. and former prosecutor Mark A. Sacha in a Democratic primary next month.
There is also a Conservative Party primary that pits Flynn, a Town of Tonawanda justice who is backed by Conservative Party leaders, against Joe V. Treanor III, a retired Air Force colonel who will be running on the Republican line.
Treanor gamely answered questions and touted his military record.
Flynn and Sacha talked about their experience and piled on criticism of Flaherty, often echoing each other’s comments.
Flynn said the public had a “crisis of confidence” in the District Attorney’s Office.
“I agree,” said Sacha.
Flaherty pointed to successes by his office to improve diversity, double homicide convictions, and establish a Public Integrity Unit.
“We’re seeing the results of hard work, and I stand by that,” Flaherty said.
The hot topics at the debate Thursday at the Burchfield Penney Art Center:
• In response to the question of whether the District Attorney’s Office passes on cases that may deserve prosecution but are hard to win:
Flynn: Pointed to the 1979 case of Patricia Rodriguez, who was found stabbed more than 100 times in Lackawanna’s Holy Cross Cemetery. After police uncovered new evidence related to the crime, Sedita’s administration passed on the opportunity to prosecute. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman picked up the case and won a conviction against the victim’s former husband.
“Under my administration, that is going to change starting Day 1,” Flynn said.
Sacha: Accused Flaherty’s staff of spending more time throwing candy at parades than investigating homicides. Said only one homicide of 26 since February has been resolved.
Flaherty: Some issues need to be taken up with the Buffalo Police Department, not his office. He pointed out that since taking office in January, his office has doubled the number of homicide convictions so far this year, compared with all of last year. A total of 32 homicide defendants have been convicted, he said, a number he’s proud of.
Treanor: Chose to aggressively pursue domestic violence cases as a young judge advocate general.
“I have never, and will never, shy away from prosecuting cases that need to be prosecuted, regardless of the outcome,” he said, “because here’s a news flash: The pursuit of justice is what we’re here for, not pursuit of victory.”
• Staff diversity: Flaherty said it has become a major priority. Since taking office, he’s hired at least four people of color as assistant district attorneys, and named a woman of color, Donna A. Milling, as his second-in-command. He’s also reached out to the Minority Bar Association and Student Minority Bar Association to encourage more young lawyers to serve as prosecutors in his office.
“I’m proud of the success we’ve had thus far,” he said. “I know we have a ways to go.”
Flynn: Called the DA Office’s racial demographics “abysmal.” No investigators are African-American. Of nearly 90 assistant district attorneys, very few are minorities. Said his own law office is much more diverse.
Treanor: Race shouldn’t matter, only the quality of a person’s character and experience.
Sacha: Flaherty should be held accountable for the years of neglect in hiring minorities since Flaherty was in charge of hiring under Sedita. The catch-up work Flaherty is doing now is worthless because it’s prompted by the coming election.
• Barry Moss: Both Flynn and Sacha attacked Sedita’s handling of the Barry Moss case and implicated Flaherty for being complicit in a decision they called unjust. Moss was struck and killed by a vehicle as he walked or rode his bicycle along Route 5 in the Town of Evans after a night of drinking in December 2013.
Evans Police have repeatedly stated they believe former lakefront bar owner Gabriele P. Ballowe was driving the SUV that struck Moss. Police said broken pieces of her SUV were found near Moss’ body. The police clashed with Sedita, who said he did not feel police had come up with sufficient evidence to convict Ballowe.
A grand jury voted to indict Ballowe on felony charges. But Sedita then sent a top aide to tell the grand jury there was insufficient evidence to convict Ballowe and asked them for another vote. The grand jury then voted not to indict.
Both Flynn and Sacha directly and repeatedly accused Flaherty of being that top aide.
Flaherty did not deny the charge, but only said he would not discuss the grand jury matter or politicize it out of respect for the Moss family.
• Steven Pigeon: Sacha said Flaherty was complicit in turning a blind eye to election law violations committed by Buffalo political operative Steven Pigeon. Sacha said he was the only one to make an issue of it, for which he was fired by Sedita.
Flaherty said that according to Sacha’s court testimony when he sued Sedita for the loss of his job, Sacha never called for an investigation into Pigeon. He also produced a copy of the affidavit.
Sacha responded, “You are a liar. You are a straight-up liar.”
He said he submitted a long memo to Sedita outlining Pigeon’s misdeeds, which Flaherty has not released because Flaherty said it includes grand jury information that cannot be publicly shared.
Pigeon was indicted in June on bribery, extortion and other charges after outside investigation by the Attorney General’s Office.
• Opioid epidemic: Flynn and Sacha said Sedita and Flaherty should take the blame for dismantling the DA’s Narcotics Bureau years ago, not credit for what he’s doing now to make up for the deficiency. Addicts should be offered compassion and treatment, but dealers should be prosecuted.
Flaherty: The District Attorney’s Office has made the opioid epidemic a priority as deaths have skyrocketed over the last year. Dealers are being more aggressively prosecuted. His office has re-established a Narcotics Unit and is a partner in the county task force to address the problem.