So, Western New York may have its own Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor whose aides stand accused of shutting down lanes on the George Washington Bridge in retribution for a mayor’s non-endorsement. In Niagara County, aides to Assemblyman John Ceretto, D-Lewiston, sought to punish the Town of Wheatfield because of a perceived snub by Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe.
In New Jersey, credible allegations suggest that Christie knew about the pathetic and dangerous action of his aides. It would be similarly surprising if Ceretto’s henchmen weren’t acting with the boss’ knowledge. If they were, the assemblyman isn’t in control of his own office.
As a report in The News last week showed, Robert E. Nichols, Ceretto’s top political aide, sought to ensure that none of the $1.6 million in tax dollars that Ceretto was given last year by legislative leaders went to the Wheatfield town government. The entire Town Board, including Cliffe, is Republican – as Ceretto was until recently – but the specific reason, according to emails sent by Nichols, was a belief that Cliffe ignored him and Ceretto at a community picnic. That is to say, Cliffe hurt their feelings.
As part of an email exchange, Nichols wrote:
“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.” And, in fact, the office did give to other entities within the town.
He also cautioned that Ceretto shouldn’t pay too much attention to Niagara Falls for fear of offending voters in the Town of Lewiston. That’s fair representation?
It gets worse, too, because a former Ceretto employee told The News that Ceretto and workers in his Niagara Falls office used state resources to promote his re-election efforts. That’s a potential violation of the state Public Officers Law and would appear to undermine Ceretto’s campaign theme of fighting corruption. Ceretto denies using his office for campaign work.
The email string is not simply evidence of terrible, vengeful decision-making in Ceretto’s office, but yet another indictment of the Legislature’s affection for the system of “member items,” a meaningless and deceptive euphemism for what amounts to a legal slush fund that allows officeholders to curry favor and, in effect, buy votes.
That has always been the case, but the corrupt nature of the practice isn’t often made as clear as Ceretto’s office has managed to do. Call it an accidental public service.
More commonly called pork-barrel spending, the money is given to legislators to dole out as they see fit within their districts.
How much any lawmaker receives depends in large part on party membership. In the Assembly, Democrats get more – far more – than Republicans.
That’s the primary reason Ceretto changed parties last year. As a Republican, might have been allocated no more than $100,000 to $150,000 a year in member items cash, according to Assembly Republican leader Brian Kolb. When he switched parties, Ceretto was given 10 times that amount.
That’s corrupt on its own, and so is any policy of denying funds based on partisanship, let alone anything so petty and childish as an alleged snub at a picnic. It’s a system that is unnecessary and unfair, and deserves to be abolished.