When local attorneys, business people and others donated a record amount of money to Acea M. Mosey’s campaign fund, they knew they were giving money to an experienced lawyer and Democratic Party stalwart running for Erie County Surrogate Court judge.
What they may not have known is that some of their donations – at least $33,393 – would go to political parties, political organizations and seekers of a wide variety of other political offices, including candidates for Congress, Erie County sheriff, the mayor of Buffalo and chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee.
Mosey’s campaign organization, Mosey for Surrogate committee, this year has given money – either in donations or expenditures – to a total of 167 political candidates, parties and organizations, according to a Buffalo News analysis of state Elections Board records.
Mosey is not the only judicial candidate in Erie County who donates campaign funds to other political candidates and organizations, state elections board records show. But none has come close to what Mosey has donated.
Did donors to her campaign know that a portion would wind up supporting a diverse group of politicians including the Grassroots political group, several different judicial candidates, Amherst Town Board hopefuls and the Democratic, Republican, Conservative, Independence and Working Families parties?
Mosey and her campaign treasurer, Philip Tantillo, declined to comment, citing state ethics regulations that forbid candidates for judge from discussing political issues.
But during a previous interview, campaign chairman Eugene Vukelic did address questions about fundraising and political donations.
“Everything we did was above-board under the law,” Vukelic said during the interview Aug. 8. “I can assure you of that … absolutely.”
Mosey’s organization has raised more than $900,000 – including $450,000 that Mosey loaned to the campaign from her own funds – for a race in which she has no opponent. Critics say the state’s election system makes it difficult, if not impossible, for even the most qualified candidates to win without large sums of money and vast political connections.
A further examination of state Board of Elections records shows that the Mosey for Surrogate organization has made $145,395 in expenditures over the past eight months.
Most of those expenditures went for expenses often associated with running a campaign, including political and media consultants, advertisements, party and restaurant expenses and printing. The largest of those expenses were $20,667 to Oliver’s restaurant and a $15,000 consulting fee paid to Big Dog Strategies Inc. of Clarence Center.
Thousands of dollars more were spent on donations to charitable causes, including several church groups, Big Brothers & Big Sisters of Erie County, Buffalo History Museum, the Bisons Children’s Scholarship Fund, the NAACP, the United Black Men’s Think Tank and the Women’s and Children’s Hospital Foundation.
During her Aug. 8 interview with The News, Mosey said her parents encouraged her to become involved in the political process.
“Not only that, but they encouraged me to be active in all aspects of the community – that includes politics, community organizations and all kinds of charity groups,” Mosey said. “When I was a teenager, my father told me to pick a charity organization and begin volunteering. I did that and I have done it ever since. I am glad my parents put me on that path.”
Out of the 200 individuals and organizations paid by Mosey for Surrogate, 167 were to political candidates or organizations. The largest donations to political candidates or groups was a $6,000 consulting fee paid to the Unity Coalition, a political group on Buffalo’s East Side, followed by $2,260 for Byron Brown for Mayor and $1,360 for print advertisements and donations to the Grassroots political organization, a longtime supporter of the mayor.
Many powerful and well-known politicians and organizations received money from Mosey for Surrogate. Recipients include Republican and Democratic committees of Erie County; Sheriff Timothy Howard and his Democratic Party opponent, Bernard Tolbert; Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo; State Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma; and State Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo. Several police union organizations also received Mosey money.
A $500 donation was sent to Jeremy Zellner, who is running to retain his position as chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee, and $275 went to Erin Baker, a candidate for Amherst Town Board. Baker is married to Nick Langworthy, chairman of the county’s Republican Committee.
Another $175 went to Erie County Legislator Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca. He is the son of Ralph Lorigo, chairman of the county’s Conservative Party. Zellner, Langworthy and Ralph Lorigo cross-endorsed Mosey’s candidacy for Surrogate Court earlier this year, helping ensure her victory without an opponent.
Too much of the state’s election process for judges revolves around raising money, said Dennis R. Hawkins, executive director of the Fund for Modern Courts, a New York City-based group that favors reform of the judicial selection process. He said the organization is especially concerned that candidates for judgeships get much of their campaign funding from special interest groups and lawyers who will be practicing before them.
“Polling has shown that a large majority of the public is concerned that judges may not be fair or impartial because of the donations they receive from lawyers and special interest groups,” Hawkins said.
“We feel this undermines our judicial system. We’ve had judges express concerns to us about the political process and the impact it has on the courts.”
Hawkins said his organization prefers that judges in New York be appointed – rather than elected – based upon recommendations from a “bipartisan, apolitical panel” of community representatives.
Hawkins declined to comment when asked about the money that Mosey’s campaign has given to other candidates. He said his organization has not studied that issue.
During an interview with The News on Aug. 8, Vukelic said that Mosey would like to see reforms in how judges are elected, including limits on political spending and fundraising.
But Mosey said she believes that voters should be allowed to pick judges. She said she believes she got a huge wave of financial support because local attorneys and others believe she is the most qualified candidates for surrogate judge in Erie County.
She noted that she has worked in the surrogate court for 23 years and that she is the protegee of current Surrogate Judge Barbara Howe, who is retiring at the end of this year.
“For the past 23 years, my life has revolved around Surrogate Court,” Mosey said. “I do believe I am the most qualified person for this job. … I know I can help people and families. Surrogate’s Court is there to help them during the most difficult times of their lives.”
State laws require judicial candidates to return unspent campaign funds to donors after an election. Campaign treasurer Tantillo said he hopes to return “at least 75 percent” of the donations to the people who contributed to Mosey’s campaign.
Political candidates and organizations receiving $500 or more from Acea M. Mosey Campaign this year in donations or expenditures:
- Unity Coalition of Buffalo, for consulting work, $6,000
- Byron Brown for Buffalo Mayor, $2,260
- Grassroots political organization, donations and print advertisement, $1,360
- Erie County Republican Committee, $1,340
- Erie County Democratic Committee, $1,201
- Rep. Brian Higgins, $1,135
- State Supreme Court Justice Erin Peradotto, $1,000
- Kenneth Case, Supreme Court candidate, $899
- Cheektowaga Democratic Committee, $740
- Judge Amy Martoche for State Supreme Court, $698
- Susan Eagan, Erie County judge candidate, $550
- Tonawanda City Mayor Rick Davis, $500
- Jeremy Zellner, candidate for re-election as chairman of Erie County Democratic Committee, $500
- Independence Party of New York, $500
- Gerald Greenan for State Supreme Court, $500
Mosey for Surrogate Judge campaign organization listed a total of $33,293 in donations or expenditures to a total of 167 political candidates and organizations
(Source: NY State Board of Elections)
Staff reporter Susan Schulman contributed to this story.