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Man in prison for child porn becomes issue in Erie County executive race

From a prison cell in Pennsylvania, Joseph S. Heleniak has become an issue in the Erie County executive race between incumbent Democrat Mark C. Poloncarz and County Legislator Lynne Dixon, an Independence Party member running with Republican Party support.

For years, while living in West Seneca, Heleniak was donating to Poloncarz's campaign fund by purchasing tickets to the county executive's fundraisers.

Thirty-five dollars one day, $75 another; $250 on another.

Over five years, from 2011 to 2015, Heleniak gave Poloncarz 14 separate contributions totaling about $1,000, records show.

The contributions started several years after Heleniak was released from prison following a 2005 conviction for possessing child pornography. The donations continued right through Heleniak's second child pornography possession arrest in 2014, with the most recent contribution in October 2015 – seven months before his second conviction in 2016.

Heleniak was sentenced to 30 months in prison after his first conviction, and is now serving a 10-year prison term for his second.

Jennifer L. Hibit, Poloncarz's chief of staff, who is also his campaign manager, said neither Poloncarz nor anyone on his team had heard of Heleniak or his criminal activities at the time the contributions were being made.

As soon as the Poloncarz team learned of Heleniak's criminal record, Poloncarz donated the Heleniak contributions in May 2018 to the Child Advocacy Center of Buffalo, Hibit said.

"We asked everyone on our team when this came up, and no one knew him," she said of Heleniak.

But now, as Poloncarz seeks re-election, his opponent's campaign says the Heleniak contributions illustrate the hypocrisy Poloncarz recently displayed by criticizing the Dixon campaign for retaining Christopher Grant as a political consultant.

Poloncarz called on Dixon to fire Grant after court papers revealed Grant sold off his shares of Innate Immunotherapeutics on the same day in June 2017 that Cameron Collins, the son of Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, also dumped Innate stock. Federal prosecutors say Cameron Collins and his prospective father-in-law, Stephen Zarsky, based their stock trades on inside information that Cameron Collins got from his father.

Chris Collins, his son and Zarsky are facing insider trading charges. Grant, however, has not been accused of any crime.

The Dixon campaign has not cut ties with Grant, pointing out that Grant was not charged with any wrongdoing.

In contrast, Dixon campaign manager Bryan Fiume said, Poloncarz for years took campaign contributions from Heleniak, a convicted criminal.

Contacted at the Loretto federal prison in Pennsylvania, Heleniak, now 74, said he was active in Democratic politics from the 1970s to the mid-1990s, serving as purchasing director at one point under former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski.

Heleniak said he got less involved with politics over the years, but attended a political function that Poloncarz spoke at when Poloncarz first ran for county executive in 2011.

Heleniak said he hadn't known Poloncarz at the time, but was impressed with the candidate's views, and felt it was important to financially support a Democrat for county executive.

Heleniak spoke of attending Poloncarz's political fundraisers, where, he said, he'd chat with old friends from years back, from when he was more politically active.

Heleniak recalled once talking with Poloncarz at a political event, but said he doesn't believe Poloncarz knew his name.

"I am not surprised they don't know who I am," Heleniak said. "I was not involved in the campaign at all. There was no personal relationship."

Fiume was skeptical. "It's hard to believe they wouldn't know a donor who had given more than 10 times, a donor who's been to events," Fiume said of Poloncarz and his staff. "It's a little suspect."

Hibit, the Poloncarz campaign chair, said Heleniak is one of 3,100 donors to the Poloncarz campaign since 2011, and his contributions represent 1/1000th of the $3 million Poloncarz has raised over the past eight years.

In addition, given that Heleniak dates back to the early Gorski administration, he is from a prior political era, Hibit said.

"Gorski was elected when I was 8 so no surprise I don't know him," she said of Heleniak. "And that was long before the county executive was involved in local politics so he would not know him from that era either."

Hibit said she couldn't recall how the Poloncarz team learned about Heleniak, but suggested the information had been tweeted out by Republicans.

Hibit then went on the offensive, saying Dixon's campaign accepted money from a firm proposing an asphalt plant facing strong resident opposition in the Town of Hamburg.

Dixon received $250 from AL Asphalt, the company proposing to operate in Hamburg, and another $250 from Dreamco Development, a related company, records show. Also, Roseanne DiPizio, who owns the Hamburg site and who made the application for the asphalt plant, hosted a fundraiser for Dixon.

Fiume acknowledged the contributions, but noted Dixon has come out against the Hamburg project.

"She is opposed. She doesn't let her donations dictate her policy," he said.

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