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Defending Frank Sedita Costs Taxpayers $290,000... and Counting

According to a tally provided by the Erie County Department of Law, via a Freedom of Information Law request, Erie County has paid outside counsel $289,505.49 to defend District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III against the lawsuit filed against him by Mark Sacha, a former prosecutor in the DA’s office.

That’s the total as of July 25, 2013. Sacha’s suit is currently in appeals, so the meter hasn’t stopped running yet.

You may recall the narrative underlying Sacha’s lawsuit: Under Sedita’s predecessor as DA, Frank Clark, Sacha investigated violations of election law by the 2007 campaign to elect Paul Clark Erie County executive. (Frank and Paul Clark are not related.) The investigation was not Frank Clark’s idea: One of Paul Clark’s disgruntled supporters, Michael Mullins, told the Buffalo News his story of illegally delivering $20,000 of undeclared cash in paper bags to an operator of phone banks on behalf of Paul Clark’s campaign, among other lurid tales of in politics-as-usual plot that also involved Paul Clark’s brother, outgoing Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, the ubiquitous political operative Steve Pigeon, and others. Because Mullins went public, Clark had no choice but to order an investigation.

Sacha and his team’s work on the case would eventually lead Paul Clark and Mullins to plead guilty to misdemeanor violations of election law. But, from the beginning, Sacha believed he had sufficient evidence to charge Pigeon, as well, for coordinating the illegal activity. According to Sacha, first Frank Clark and then, after he was elected, Sedita ignored Sacha when he urged them to pursue charges against Pigeon. Pigeon has been a close political ally and advisor to both DAs; he helped Sedita get the Conservative Party endorsement in 2008 from the party’s chairman, Ralph Lorigo, who helped to negotiate the plea deals for Paul Clark and Mullins. Over time, Sacha came to the conclusion that his bosses were unwilling to act on his investigation because of their political and personal relationships with Pigeon.

On January 2, 2009, immediately after taking office, Sedita restructured the DA’s office, demoting Sacha from deputy DA to assistant DA. Sacha claims he was subject to harassment and threats over the subsequent months. In September 2009, a frustrated Sacha publicly aired his belief that Sedita (and Clark before him) had refused to pursue charges against Pigeon out of political loyalty and opportunism. Within a week of his doing so, Sedita fired Sacha. Sacha then filed a whistleblower suit against Sedita in federal court, alleging wrongful termination and violation of his First Amendment rights, seeking reinstatement, lost wages and benefits, and $300,000 in compensatory damages.

Last October, Chief US District Judge William M. Skretny dismssed Sacha’s suit without ruling on the veracity of the underlying narrative: Skretny simply ruled that neither the First Amendment nor state whistleblower law protected Sacha from being fired by Sedita. Sacha has filed an appeal, which will be heard later this year.

Through all this, beginning in May 2010, Erie County has been paying Sedita’s legal bills from one of the region’s priciest forms, Hodgson Russ. One of Sedita’s attorneys is Adam Perry, among the firm’s highest-billing partners.

Obligatory, it’s-a-small-world observations: Guess who else is a partner at the firm? The DA’s cousin, Joseph Sedita. Guess who’s treasurer for Sedita’s campaign committee? The same Joseph Sedita. Guess where mail and phone correspondence for Sedita’s campaign committee flows? Joseph Sedita’s office at Hodgson Russ.

Thus arises an irony: Last week, former assistant DA Matthew Albert asked Sedita’s campaign to return the $1,000 he felt compelled to donate at a May fundraiser this year, along with nearly every other employee in the DA’s office. This request was addressed to a partner in the firm that is defending Sedita against an allegation that he refused to pursue violations of campaign finance election law.

And this is as good a time as any to underline another irony: Sedita is one of nine sitting DAs whom Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed to his Moreland Commission charged with addressing corruption in government and politics.

At the time he was fired, Sacha made about $90,000; when all this is over, whether Sacha wins or loses, the taxpayers might have done better financially if Sedita had shouldered Sacha’s public criticism and kept him on. The taxpayers would have done even better, of course, if Sedita had encouraged Sacha’s investigation into Pigeon’s activities to begin with, and pursued charges if they were warranted. Instead, the taxpayers must pay the price of Sedita’s political friendship with Pigeon—who will, no doubt, repay Sedita by helping him get the judgeship he so dearly wants.

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