LEWISTON - Assemblyman John D. Ceretto told The Buffalo News Friday he's not worried about the uproar over disclosures of his staff's emails that showed politics played a role in his allocation of state money in his district.
Ceretto waved away demands for him to resign or drop out of the race for re-election, issued Friday morning by his Republican opponent, Angelo J. Morinello, who also called for a variety of state agencies and committees to investigate Ceretto.
"I'm not worried about it. We didn't do anything wrong," Ceretto said.
Marinello vowed a fairer process in distributing discretionary grants, called member items, if he is elected to the 145th Assembly District seat. However, as a member of the Republican minority, he would have far less money available to him than Ceretto would as a member of the Democratic majority.
The News reported this week that emails from last year showed that a political advisor and part-time Ceretto staffer, Robert L. Nichols, recommended that state money shouldn't go to the Wheatfield town government because the supervisor, Robert B. Cliffe, allegedly refused to talk to Ceretto and Nichols at a town picnic in August 2015. That occurred shortly after Ceretto switched parties from Republican to Democratic.
Ceretto confirmed Cliffe's statement that the Town of Wheatfield never actually asked for any money from Ceretto's allocation of more than $1.6 million in state money to use in his district. Cliffe said he preferred to make requests to the Republican state senator who represents the town, Robert G. Ortt.
Ceretto said he gave money to others in Wheatfield, including a $5,000 grant to Das Haus, a German heritage museum, as well as grants to the Niagara-Wheatfield School District. He said he lined up $100,000 in discretionary funding and $125,000 for a recreational area for handicapped children at the school.
"The biggest group I gave to was Niagara Falls, because that's the biggest community in my district, and the neediest," Ceretto said. "I'm the final decision-maker, but the money is vetted by a lot of agencies, including the Attorney General's Office. It's an involved process. It takes about a year."
He said he lined up $500,000 for a new fire training tower, $125,000 to repair frozen water pipes on 72nd Street and also aided the new tourist trolley that started running this year between Niagara Falls and Youngstown.
The emails indicated Nichols thought that Ceretto needed to be careful not to give too much money to Niagara Falls for fear of offending voters in the outlying towns of the 145th Assembly District.
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said GOP members tend to receive state member item allocations of $100,000 to $150,000. Ceretto said that's a recent development.
"When I was in the minority side, I got zero for my district," Ceretto contended. "I never had a penny. (Former Assembly Speaker) Sheldon Silver was tough. Carl Heastie is nicer."
Heastie succeeded Silver after Silver was charged with public corruption crimes, of which he was eventually convicted.
Ceretto said he expects his allocation of member item cash will increase if he is re-elected. "If I'm in office I'll have more money to help my district," he said. "I'm hoping I can go back to Albany because I'm finally in position to bring money back to help my district."
Morinello, a retired Niagara Falls city judge, said if he wins the election, "All municipalities, school districts, not-for-profits and taxpayers will be notified of what funds or grants are available and the process by which they can apply. I’m going to proactively travel around to each community in my district and find out what their needs are. We’re going to return tax dollars to the community the way it should be done. That’s why my office will establish an independent panel that will be responsible for deciding where the greatest needs in our community are. We’ll listen and get all the facts. We’re going to make decisions based on what’s best for the community, not someone’s political career.”
Ceretto said his office sent out that kind of letter to local governments, too.
"This is all just politics," he said. "Every one of my staff members have had ethics training, including me."