Niagara Gazette

February 25, 2013

Falls lawmakers say they are victims of erroneous robo-calls regarding board of elections

By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Niagara County Democrats are crying foul over an automated telephone call made to voters in the city of Niagara Falls last week. 

The robo-calls from an as-yet-identified source targeted voters in districts represented by Niagara County Legislature Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso and fellow Democratic lawmaker Jason Zona. The caller alleged that both men played a role in helping former Democratic Elections Commissioner Nancy Smith stay on the county payroll as an assistant with the elections board, suggesting move will result in an added burden to area taxpayers. 

Democratic county lawmakers voted last week to appoint Lora Allen as a new election commissioner, replacing Smith who had served in the post for many years. It was announced after the meeting that Smith would remain with the board to assist with the transition as Allen's deputy. Smith is expected to remain with the elections board through April when she is expected to retire. 

The automated messages suggested Virtuoso and Zona helped orchestrate the switch to allow Smith to receive more time on the county payroll,  which the caller says would allow her to collect enhanced benefits upon retirement, including lifetime health insurance. Individuals receiving the message were encouraged to contact Virtuoso and tell him "no new sweetheart deals for his friends and family." A similar call was placed to voters in Zona's district as well. 

Both Virtuoso and Zona described the content of the messages as false and both lawmakers — who are up for re-election this year — suspect political motives are at work.

"They are just trying to ruin our credibility," Virtuoso said. 

Virtuoso said Allen — as commissioner — chose her deputy and legislators have no say in the matter. 

"The elections commissioner has full reign over who she hires and who she fires," Virtuoso said. "We have no say whatsoever." 

Beyond that, both he and Zona maintain Smith will receive the same level of benefits upon her retirement whether she leaves now or in April.

Zona said he was further agitated by an assertion made by the caller that he was involved in the issue at all, noting that he was out of town during the meeting where Allen was appointed and did not cast a single vote on the measure, or any other. 

"The funny part is, I wasn't even there," Zona said, adding, "To me, it just shows that I'm doing something right if in February, they are already putting out calls to people's houses and telling them blatant lies."

Reached by telephone on Monday, Allen said she alone made the decision to appoint Smith as her deputy. She said Smith's services will be retained for a "few weeks" to help with the transition in the office. She also maintains that Smith's post-retirement benefits will not change as a result of her added time on the job.

Niagara County Human Resources Director Peter Lopes could not be reached for comment Monday. 

As for the call itself, Allen characterized it as a "complete untruth." 

"I don't know who did it, but it was not true and just mean," she said. 

Based on his research, Virtuoso believes the anonymous call may have come from a company located on Main Street in the city of Buffalo. He noted that the message did not disclose the identity of anyone who may have financed its creation and delivery. 

A spokesperson for the Federal Communications Commission said Monday Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations require identification of the business, individual or entity responsible for initiating the call. Under the rules, the caller either during or after the message must provide a telephone number for the business, individual or entity that made the call. 

The FCC is responsible for investigating complaints involving automated messages. If the agency determines that a violation has occurred, it can issue letters to callers encouraging them to adhere to the rules. Persistent violators can face fines. 

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