By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — A discussion about a city councilman's interest in a downtown business prompted a heated exchange between one of his council colleagues and his brother-in-law during the public speaking portion of Wednesday's meeting at City Hall.
The debate started when Councilman Sam Fruscione's brother-in-law Dan Vecchies approached the podium inside council chambers to tell Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti how "very disappointed" he was in public comments she made earlier this week concerning a business co-owned by Fruscione that has been selling a variety of items, including T-shirts depicting mob figures, out of a storefront on Old Falls Street in recent weeks.
The discussion prompted a few follow-up speakers to offer their feelings about mafia figures and images from the city's past, including the spectre of the notorious mob boss Stefano Magaddino whose name came up several times.
"When you want to glamorize the mob, remember what it's about," said former Mayor Vince Anello, who disagreed with the sale of mob-related items in general, referring to Magaddino as a "criminal" who "preyed on his own people."
"It's not something that Italians should glamorize," Anello added.
Vecchies used part of his time at the microphone to call out Grandinetti for comments she made about items being sold inside the Falls Street Emporium, a small novelty shop located on Old Falls Street. Little Italy Niagara, a company co-owned by Fruscione and his brother, started leasing space inside the building for use as a storefront since June.
He also said he took exception to her characterization of his involvement in helping the owner of a new pizzeria that recently opened inside the building next store to the Emporium. Vecchies accused Grandinetti of playing "political games," suggesting her comments about the pizza shop were an attemp by her to discredit Fruscione, one of her opponents in this year's council race.
"It really irks me that the city of NIagara Falls and Councilwoman Grandinetti would stoop to this level," Vecchies said.
At one point, Vecchies, referencing an article that appeared in the Buffalo News on Wednesday, suggested Grandinetti told the media outlet she was "ashamed" of her heritage.
Grandinetti immediately interjected, telling Vecchies he was misquoting her.
"I'm not ashamed of my heritage," Grandinetti said. "I am ashamed of it being misrepresented, so let's try to get that straight Mr. Vecchies."
Earlier this week, Grandinetti publicly questioned Fruscione's decision to vote to approve a $15,000 grant for the pizzeria owner in his role as a member of the board for the NFC Development Corp., a lending arm of the city. She suggested that Fruscione should have recused himself from the vote, or made it known to her and other board members that Vecchies played a role in the application process. She also suggested it may have been appropriate for Fruscione to tell board members of his business interests in the building next door to the pizza shop.
After Wednesday's meeting, Grandinetti said her position has not changed.
"He did not disclose their connection," she said.
She said she also still believes selling products related to mob activities and figures sends the wrong message about Niagara Falls and is not something the city should be looking to glorify or revive.
Following Wednesday's meeting, Fruscione said "90 percent" of the items being sold inside the Falls Street Emporium are knick-knack type of items, including flip-flops, purses and bubble guns. He said the store's mob-related merchandise and displays are intended as a tribute to George Karalus, a retired state trooper who was active in investigations that eventually led to the breaking up of organized crime rings in the Falls. He said he is not seeking to glorify the mob or the mafia and teaches his own children to "denounce" such figures and activities.
"We're going to continue to promote George's story because what George did was heroic," Fruscione said.
He noted that several other communities, including New York City, Chicago and, more recently, Las Vegas, have opened centers dedicated to mob history and he said the items his shop sells are nowhere near on the same scale.
"Only in Niagara Falls do we make a big deal out of this," Fruscione said.
As for his decision to vote on the grant for the pizzeria next door to his firm's novelty shop, Fruscione said Vecchies was not involved in the application process and is not affiliated with the pizza shop owner in or his business in anyway. He also said Little Italy Niagara has not and will not benefit from the grant proceeds provided to its neighbor.
"I'm pretty clear when it comes to abstaining," Fruscione said. "I'm not going to compromise my family's integrity."
He accused Grandinetti of attempting to use the situation to her political advantage, suggesting she is "down in the polls" and now needs to "go negative."
"She's grasping at straws in an election year because she has spent four years on the city council doing nothing," Fruscione said. "My accomplishments are huge. Her accomplishments are zero."
After Wednesday's meeting, Vecchies admitted that he went to city hall to obtain an application for a loan for the business owner, but did not actively work to obtain a grant for him. He also did admit to developing a business plan for the pizzeria owner. He insisted that neither he, nor Fruscione, have benefited from the grant personally.
"The grant is for the business, not the building," Vecchies said.