NIAGARA FALLS - When Assemblyman John D. Ceretto of Lewiston switched parties last year from Republican to Democrat, he said one of the reasons for the switch was that he would be able to obtain more state funds for his district.
But as it turns out, not everyone in the district is to be treated equally.
Emails provided to The Buffalo News showed that Robert E. Nichols, Ceretto's top political aide, wanted to make sure none of the $1.6 million in tax dollars that Ceretto was allocated last year by legislative leaders went to the Wheatfield town government, all of whose elected members are Republicans, because Town Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe allegedly gave Nichols and Ceretto the cold shoulder at a public picnic.
Nichols also warned that Ceretto shouldn't overdo it with grants to projects in the City of Niagara Falls, because town voters might object.
Ceretto said in an email that he allocated his discretionary state grants to worthy projects in his district, but did not directly respond to questions about what role politics played in his decisions. Ceretto did not challenge the authenticity of the Nichols' emails obtained by The Buffalo News.
A former Ceretto employee told The News that Ceretto and workers in Ceretto's Niagara Falls district office also attended several meetings in the office about Ceretto's re-election efforts. Invitations for a Feb. 13 campaign fundraiser were created on an Assembly computer during work hours, printed on a state printer and mailed out with Assembly postage stamps.
Such use of state resources for political purposes is against the law. In February, the state Legislative Ethics Commission imposed a $30,000 civil penalty on former Cheektowaga Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak for holding campaign meetings in his district office and using state resources for political activity.
Assemblyman Brian Kolb, leader of the Assembly Republican minority, said Ceretto could be in trouble for that. "That clearly is a violation of the Public Officers Law. He'd be subject to an ethics investigation," Kolb said.
Cereetto said he doesn't do campaign work in his Assembly office.
"I take protecting taxpayer money very seriously. I do not conduct campaign work out of my legislative office and have not authorized anyone else to do so," Ceretto told The News by email. "I reminded my staff that I will not stand for any political work being done out of that office or while on state time. It will not be tolerated."
Kolb said the member item system, in which individual legislators are supplied with state money to pass out in their districts, is a key reason that reform of New York State government, regarded as the nation's most corrupt, never seems to be significantly reformed. Kolb said if Ceretto has remained with the Republicans, he might have been allocated no more than $100,000 to $150,000 a year for use as member items. When he switched parties, Ceretto was given 10 times more than that.
Kolb said more senior Assembly Democrats have said publicly that they were given more than $4 million to spread around their districts. The allocations are made by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan. In both houses, members of the majority party receive far more than minority members, Kolb said.
"Part of the problem with Albany is that this is how majorities in both houses basically control their members and get them to vote along lines and get them to go along with agreements they may normally agree with," Kolb said. "We all represent the same number of people. There shouldn't be this drastic disparity. ... That's what they do to keep their members in line."
Ceretto said in an email that he allocates member item dollars to worthy projects.
"I put a lot of thought into where the funding I secure does the most good," he said. "A big part of my criteria is which non-profits or community organizations, like local VFWs, healthcare centers, or SPCAs, make the biggest impact on the ground. I secured funds for important projects that will have a direct impact on local families, like the new Cardiac Care unit at Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital. I also directed funding to boost tourism and create jobs, including the penguin exhibit at the aquarium, the new trolley system between Niagara Falls and Lewiston that launched this summer, and the Sanborn Area Historical Society. It’s also important to note that each member item is thoroughly vetted by the state attorney general’s office, the state comptroller’s office and relevant state agencies, as well as internally by the state Assembly. These are all worthy projects that make our community stronger."
The emails obtained by the News showed that Ceretto's then-chief of staff, Lynne Neveu, suggested on Sept. 9, 2015, that Ceretto should send letters to all the localities in his district asking them to suggest projects to be funded with the more than $1.6 million in "member items" that Ceretto controlled.
"That way, we know what everybody needs so we can ensure our perspective is complete and fair," Neveu wrote.
"Frankly, I don't think the process needs to be 100 percent fair to every municipality," Nichols replied. "I see little benefit in going out of our way to aid government entities and organizations that are not willing to work with us on other projects that are critical to their community."
Another staffer in the district office, Mary Machelor, joined the email conversation. She wrote, "We can do 'good' and still help ourselves. Wheatfield is a place I think of - they may be smarting from the change - but JC will also be there to support them and their needs regardless."
"Mary, I agree with you," Nichols answered. "However, please note that when John and I visited the Wheatfield GOP booth during the community picnic - Bob Cliff (sic) avoided us and did not speak to us. So we made an effort and were pushed away. So in this case, how is it beneficial to help him with his budget? I would prefer to help not for profits or fire halls in the town of Wheatfield."
Cliffe said last week that he didn't remember the alleged incident at the late August 2015 picnic. "I can't envision avoiding him," Cliffe said. "I don't know of any hostility."
But Cliffe said the town seldom asked Ceretto for funds, even when he was a Republican. "Most of our requests have come through the Senate," Cliffe said. Wheatfield is in the district of State Sen. Robert G. Ortt, a Republican, and before that was represented in the Senate for 19 years by GOP stalwart George D. Maziarz.
Ceretto hasn't paid much attention to Wheatfield, Cliffe said, although Ceretto did come to some large public meetings about environmental controversies in the town. "He's never been one to spend a lot of time with us," Cliffe said.
"The watershed should be helping everybody, not based on political considerations," Kolb said. "Do legislators do that? I'm sure of it, but that certainly isn't the way you should approach this. Once you get elected, you're supposed to represent everybody and doing what's best for the district. So now you're going to selectively punish a community because you've had a disagreement politically with one of its residents or elected officials? So who's really suffering is the constituents."
"It's shocking to me," said former Niagara Falls City Judge Angelo J. Morinello, who is running against Ceretto in next month's election. "If he is picking and choosing money, he's clearly doing this for political reasons and not 'Let's do what's right.' To me, this is not typical political theatrics, if you're shunning one community in your district for the wrong reasons."
Niagara Falls is the largest community in the 145th Assembly District, and arguably the neediest one. On Sept. 28, 2015, Neveu told Nichols by email that member item projects already agreed to included $500,000 for a firefighter training tower in Niagara Falls, $125,000 to help repair frozen residential water pipes in the Falls, and $250,000 each for Lewiston waterfront improvements and Town of Niagara parks. They discussed other projects for the money remaining in the member item kitty.
Nichols wasn't sure about a $125,000 request for a Niagara Falls skateboard park, even though he said he liked the project.
"We will be attacked in the towns that we only care about the city. We need town democrats and republican voters to be successful. Francine DelMonte ignored the towns with the casino funds and they destroyed her," Nichols wrote. He was referring to the Democratic assemblywoman whom Ceretto, then a Republican, upset in the 2012 election. As it turned out, the skateboard park wasn't funded.
Another project in Niagara Falls that Nichols was leery of was a proposal to build a museum to house a statue of inventor Nikola Tesla, which is now located in Niagara Falls State Park. Tesla is known for his efforts to harness Niagara Falls hydropower in the late 19th century.
When Neveu suggested money for the Tesla Museum, Nichols replied, "Let's try to avoid contributing any resources to anything that James Hufnagel is working on. He constantly criticizes John and the mayor." The reference was to Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster. Hufnagel writes frequently for the Niagara Falls Reporter, a weekly tabloid that devotes much of its space to attacks on Dyster. The Tesla project wasn't funded.
In January, Neveu and Nicholas had an email discussion of how to get local projects inserted in the state budget. "I really think our request needs to be big," Nichols wrote Jan. 22. "This is what Ortt is doing. I guarantee he is going to ask for 10 million for Niagara Falls infrastructure and he may even have our republican opponent stand right next to him when he does."
A staff member in the Assembly speaker's office, Alex Sutherland, was copied on that email. "In the future, nothing political in nature can be discussed through state email," Sutherland warned. He gave the Ceretto staffers his personal email address so the conversation could continue.
The former Ceretto staffer told The News of four meetings in the district office, entirely devoted to re-election politics, including meetings between Ceretto and local Democratic Party chairmen. The office phone also was used to call potential donors, the staffer said.
Politics also became involved in other matters. Neveu received an email announcing a meeting being held by Canadian and U.S. customs officials Nov. 4, 2015, in Kleinhans Music Hall to discuss reducing wait times for drivers crossing the border. Since Ceretto's district includes three international bridges, Neveu asked if it would be worthwhile to attend the meeting.
Ceretto emailed her Oct. 23, "Rule of thumb on calendar events: Ask yourself. Does this help John Ceretto get re-elected if I was to attend?? If the answer is NO then you probablay (sic) don't attend."
Nichols did not return calls seeking comment Monday. But Ceretto is running a television commercial in his re-election campaign in which he promises, "I will continue to have zero tolerance for elected officials who abuse their office, no matter what the party."