NIAGARA FALLS - Angelo J. Morinello, who is running against Assemblyman John D. Ceretto in the Nov. 8 election, proposed a package of anti-corruption measures Tuesday that he said he would include in the first bill he'll introduce if he is elected.
Morinello called for reducing the contribution limits for political campaigns; barring companies that receive state contracts from making political donations for a year after the contract is awarded; and banning legislators from making "member item" grants to any organization that has made political contributions to state officials or committees.
Morinello, a Republican and a former Niagara Falls city judge, is challenging Ceretto, a Lewiston Democrat, in the 145th Assembly District, which includes most of western Niagara County plus Grand Island.
Ceretto has come under fire after The Buffalo News revealed Ceretto staff emails that showed political considerations were part of the decision-making process for grants Ceretto awarded in his district last year.
Morinello has called for investigations of Ceretto by several state agencies and commissions, but Ceretto said last week he wasn't worried about that, because he said he had done nothing wrong.
Ceretto questioned Morinello's ability to get his ethics proposals passed if he is elected as a member of the Republican minority.
"I can't speak about the future, but (as a Republican) the only bills I could pass were local bills from a town or a city. Any other bills, I needed a Democratic sponsor," Ceretto said.
"Because he couldn't do something doesn't mean I can't," Morinello said. He said he's already talked to Democratic members from Erie County about a Western New York coalition, and Morinello said he thinks both parties see the need for ethics reforms in Albany.
Ceretto changed parties from Republican to Democratic in 2015, in part because members of the Assembly's Democratic majority find it easier to access state funds to assist groups in their districts. Ceretto had more than $1.6 million available last year; he contended he was shut out completely from member item allocations when he was a Republican.
Morinello proposed tougher penalties for violations of the law that bans the use of state resources for political purposes, as The News reported Ceretto staffers had done. Morinello called for a $40,000 fine plus the value of any benefits received as a result of the violation. The previous $10,000 civil penalty "wasn't enough of a deterrent," Morinello said.
He proposed combining that with a ban on member item grants to groups that have made any political contributions, and dubbed those provisions "Ceretto's Law," although Ceretto made his grants only to municipalities and school districts, not to donors.
Ceretto's member item grants last year included $500,000 to the City of Niagara Falls for a new fire training tower and another $125,000 to repair frozen water pipes on 72nd Street. There also was $50,000 for a tourist trolley. He also gave the Town of Niagara $250,000 for parks improvements; the Village of Lewiston $250,000 for waterfront improvements; $125,000 for a town dog park in Grand Island; $225,000 to the Niagara-Wheatfield School District; and $150,000 to the Niagara Falls School District.
In an effort to end "bid-rigging," Morinello proposed a one-year ban on political contributions by companies that are awarded state contracts. He also said that any company that responds to a state request for proposals must inform any politician or political committee to which the company has contributed during the previous year, and those recipients would be required to refund those donations.
Morinello also called for a law that would limit legislative leaders and committee chairmen in the Senate and Assembly to no more than eight consecutive years in those roles.
"I think there should be term limits," said Morinello, who promised to serve no more than six years in the Assembly. "This is a working document, but as a compromise, I would start with leaders."
Ceretto said he voted for the state constitutional amendment that would take away the pensions of state officials convicted of government-related corruption. To become law, it needs to pass again in the next two years and be approved in a referendum.
"I'm willing to put my pension on the line and go back to Albany and vote a second time to strip it if I do anything wrong," said Ceretto, who has 21 years in the state pension system as a local officeholder, State Parks employee and assemblyman.
However, if he were to get in trouble now, his pension would not be endangered, because the amendment hasn't become law yet.