John J. Flynn Jr. makes his bid for district attorney in this month’s primary election backed by a full résumé and crucial support from the Erie County Democratic Party leaders.
His approach to the Sept. 13 primary brims with proposals and ideas. He boasts of endorsements from the county’s top police unions. And he’ll have the necessary money to broadcast his message on television.
But his main thrust – the theme to which he constantly returns in any discussion of his candidacy – is criticism of acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr., one of his two opponents in the Democratic contest Sept. 13. From labeling as “political” Flaherty’s reopening of an Evans hit-and-run fatality case to what he calls a reluctance to tackle difficult prosecutions, Flynn says that the current administration has failed and that he will do better.
“There is a perception across this community – from law enforcement to criminal defense attorneys – that there is a problem in that office,” Flynn said a few days ago. “It all stems from the same concept: the District Attorney’s Office is not taking on the tough cases.”
Flynn, 50, almost ignores the third candidate in the race – former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha. Instead, he continues to pummel Flaherty, a veteran prosecutor who served as top assistant to then-District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III and has been the county’s chief prosecutor ever since his old boss ascended to the State Supreme Court bench Jan. 1.
Although Flaherty’s campaign emphasizes departures from the Sedita administration as well as significant advances in all sorts of prosecutions, Flynn does not let up. He says the office became skittish after its failure to convict Dr. James G. Corasanti of any of the major charges in the hit-and-run drunken-driving case in which Alexandria M. “Alix” Rice, 18, of Amherst, was killed in 2011 while riding her longboard home from work. And he points to the necessity of the state attorney general’s intervention in other high-profile cases.
In 2014, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman successfully prosecuted the Patricia S. Rodriguez homicide case dating from 1979, Flynn noted. And the attorney general has now filed corruption charges against former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon after Sacha alleged in 2009 that Sedita had demurred for political reasons.
During his own stint as an assistant district attorney, Flynn said, he once took on a difficult homicide case and lost. He promises to never shy away from daunting cases.
“That, more than anything, needs to be changed,” he said. “You try your best, and if you lose, you lose.”
Flynn comes across as an intense competitor with a firm grasp of the issues stemming from years of immersion in the law and Democratic politics. A father of five who attends daily Mass, he says he had “seen it all” during his more than three years as a town justice and acting Buffalo City Court judge.
As with Sacha, the 2013 hit-and-run death of handyman Barry T. “Bob” Moss, 52, of Angola, and Flaherty’s role in its prosecution loom large for Flynn. After an Erie County grand jury voted to indict bar owner Gabriele P. Ballowe in the case, and after Evans police strongly backed her prosecution, The Buffalo News reported that Sedita sent a “top assistant” back into the grand jury to seek a reversal.
Although Flynn contends that Sedita sought to back off for fear of an unsuccessful prosecution, Flaherty will not discuss his role because of grand jury secrecy rules and “respect for the Moss family.” Flynn contends that Flaherty is not bound by those grand jury rules because the question concerns his role in the proceedings and not the actions of the grand jury itself.
Now, Flaherty has announced that he will reopen the case, citing new evidence.
“This is political now,” Flynn said. “For him to re-indict, and for him to grandstand by saying, ‘I am my own man,’ is using the criminal-justice system for his own political purposes when he went in there two years ago and told them to change their minds.
“It’s preposterous for him to say Mark and I are making this political,” Flynn added. “It should have been done two years ago.”
He also takes every opportunity to link Flaherty to Sedita.
“He can’t separate himself from the fact he was second in command,” he said. “Joe Biden can’t separate himself from Barack Obama.”
But Flynn offers other arguments for his election, including his own background. Like Edward C. Cosgrove, his uncle and a former Erie County district attorney, Flynn said a prosecutorial career should not be required. Though he points to a successful stint in the office under then-District Attorney Frank J. Clark, he believes that his experience as a Tonawanda town justice, town attorney, Navy JAG officer and trial attorney in civil practice prepares him for everything faced in the role of upstate’s busiest prosecutor.
His legal experience in the Navy (and currently in the Navy Reserve) encompassed civil, personnel and criminal appeals of courts-martial. He says it all adds up.
“This job requires a combination of skills in management, leadership and legal issues,” he said. “All the training and jobs I’ve handled have brought me to this position in life where I think I could excel in this job.”
Nevertheless, Flynn’s long involvement in Democratic politics and close ties to party leaders have drawn pushback from his opponents. Flaherty, especially, has labeled his opponent a “perennial candidate” and a puppet of party bosses.
The News reported on several occasions that Flynn was mentioned as interested in or actively seeking sheriff in 2005, county executive in 2007, state senator in 2008, district attorney in 2008, State Supreme Court justice in 2009, party chairman in 2012, Democratic elections commissioner in 2012, and Court of Claims judge in 2015.
But Flynn labeled “unfair” many of those descriptions, pointing out that he officially ran for only two offices – Tonawanda town justice and Tonawanda councilman – in the last 13 years. He said that most of the other instances in which his name was associated with political openings stemmed from the efforts of former Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan, a close ally who is now a county Board of Elections commissioner.
“So I’m not sure how running twice classifies me as a perennial candidate,” he said. “Every other time, it was the party leaders coming to me. I never put my name out there except for DA eight years ago.”
Flynn denies ever expressing interest in the party chairmanship, although insiders still say he did. He acknowledges mulling a candidacy for sheriff after Lenihan approached him; ditto for county executive and consideration for a State Supreme Court vacancy. He said Town of Tonawanda Democratic Chairman John J. Crangle Jr. asked him to consider the Senate run, adding that he eventually said no.
But now he appears ready to compete for one of the legal profession’s most lofty posts with a well-organized and well-financed effort. His last campaign finance report shows about $128,000 on hand, most of which is fueling two television spots. And his main advantage may lie in the endorsement of Democratic leaders, who rely on decades of experience in rallying the party faithful to get out the vote on primary day.
Flynn confronts a double challenge, however, since he must face in the Conservative primary another former JAG officer who also has Republican backing in the general election – retired Air Force Col. Joseph V. Treanor III. The line often proves crucial in close elections, and Flynn is working hard to convince the minor-party voters through a series of direct mailings.
Flynn said he has raised and spent about $280,000 so far, with at least two more fundraisers slated to replenish his campaign fund.
Flynn is assured of at least two minor-party lines – Working Families and Women’s Equality – in the November general election.
email: firstname.lastname@example.org WEDNESDAY: Mark Sacha, the outsider candidate