Niagara Gazette

December 10, 2012

Election chief still on hold

By Joyce M. Miles
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — LOCKPORT — Democratic county lawmakers will unilaterally reappoint Nancy Smith as their party’s election commissioner next month.

So said Minority Caucus Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, in the midst of a contentious Legislature session Tuesday, when Republican legislators made hay over Smith’s role in the recent firing of an election board clerk.

Virtuoso said he expected “political theater” from lawmaker Paul Wojtaszek, R-North Tonawanda, over Smith’s nomination — and Wojtaszek did not disappoint him.

The deputy majority caucus leader, who two weeks ago succeeded in getting Smith’s nomination tabled pending the outcome of a semi-secret “inquiry” he wanted into several matters involving the board of elections, motioned to untable the nomination Tuesday, then launched into a speech about why he would vote “no” to approving Smith.

The inquiry, by the legislature’s administration committee, sought answers from Smith regarding why voting results were so late coming in on Election Night and, also, why she fired Larry Soos, the former North Tonawanda mayor, from his job as a board clerk. The latter question was explored in executive session Nov. 27, partly under guise of pending litigation.

Soos was fired Oct. 2, the day after he quarreled with newly elected county Democratic committee chairman Nick Forster at the party’s reorganization meeting. The state labor department initially denied Soos unemployment benefits, ruling he’d been fired for misconduct as a county employee.

Wojtaszek raised a red flag over labor’s finding, questioning whether Soos had improperly gone to the party meeting as a county employee — or been fired from a county job over politics.

On Tuesday, Wojtaszek declared that Smith “lied” to the administration committee when she was asked whether Soos’ conduct at the party meeting led to his firing.

“She said, unequivocally, no,” — but Wojtaszek later learned Smith’s written statement to the human resources office, sent after Soos applied for unemployment, said the opposite.

“The reasons cited at that time in writing (by Smith) were explicity political and not related to (Soos’) job performance,” Wojtaszek said. “She plain and simple lied to the committee. ... She violated the public trust; covered up ... at the behest of her (party) chairman.”

If Smith acted improperly, she wasn’t the only one, Virtuoso and legislator Jason Zona, D-Niagara Falls, countered.

Whenever a board employee is dismissed, both election commissioners have to sign off on the action, they said, and GOP Election Commissioner Mary Ann Casamento signed off on Soos’ termination alongside Smith — but she hasn’t been questioned.

“Cover up! That’s powerful words!” Virtuoso bellowed at Wojtaszek. “If you chastise one, you chastise both. There’s no way around it.”

Majority Leader Rick Updegrove, R-Lockport, also criticized Smith, citing a media report in which Soos claimed Smith had told him she was firing him at Forster’s direction.

Smith taking direction from Forster, versus the county attorney or the human resources director, “smells bad. I don’t like it,” Updegrove asserted. With Soos’ termination, the county has to pay his unemployment and also pay his replacement, he added.

Wojtaszek’s and Updegrove’s complaints about Smith are disingenuous “bull,”, Zona charged. Every legislator knows that the board clerks, as well as the commissioners, are “at will” hires sponsored by their political parties, he said.

Wojtaszek moving to untable Smith’s appointment theoretically opened the door to an up-or-down approving vote by the full legislature — but the vote didn’t occur, because none of the 15 lawmakers offered a motion.

Not that it matters, since Smith can be given the job for another two years with or without GOP lawmakers’ support.

By state election law, county legislatures pretty much rubber-stamp the major political parties’ picks for county election commissioners; they don’t have any authority to appoint commissioners who are not supported by their party.

And if the full legislature doesn’t vote to appoint Smith by Dec. 19 — 30 days after the Democratic committee advanced its recommendation to the legislature clerk — then state law gives appointing power to Democratic legislators alone.

Soos, in a late Tuesday telephone interview, said he successfully appealed the labor department’s denial of unemployment benefits last week. The county didn’t send anyone to object at his Nov. 26 hearing before an administrative judge.

Tonawanda News editor Eric Duvall contributed to this report.