Niagara Gazette

January 6, 2008

NIAGARA COUNTY: New DA is for the people

By Rick Pfeiffer/pfeifferr@gnnewspaper.com

LOCKPORT — He doesn’t actually have his own office yet and by his own admission, he’s “learning the ropes.”

Still, all you have to do is ask new Niagara County District Attorney Michael Violante, “How ya doing?” and the look on his face shows he’s happy after 37 years as a defense attorney, that he changed sides in the war on crime.

“I reached a point where I outlived my desire to defend,” he said. “The desire to fight hard for the people I was representing was growing thin and the opportunity (to run for DA) was there.”

He takes over the reins of what he quickly points out is the largest law firm in the county, after having spent time leading the second largest firm, the Public Defender’s Office.

“I was aware of some things about how the (DA’s) office operated from being on the other side,” Violante said. “But I have to learn the inner workings of this office.”

The new boss has spent much of first few days on the job, he officially took over on Wednesday, meeting with the 22 prosecutors and dozen plus support staff who make up the DA’s office. He’s been pleased by what he’s found.

Despite the relative youth of his staff of prosecutors, Violante said they are a talented group of lawyers.

“There are several (younger) members of the staff who have tried felony cases in the past and there are some (more veteran prosecutors) who are a source of direction for the younger attorneys,” Violante said. “All the attorneys in this office are willing to help each other to get the best results for the people. It’s pleasant to see and makes my job easier.”

A lifelong resident of Niagara Falls, Violante, 62, is married with four children. He got his undergraduate college degree from Boston College and then received his law degree from Suffolk Law School.

“My last semester in law school, I worked for the Suffolk County, Mass., district attorney,” Violante said. “So I did work for a DA once.”

Even as he gets acclimated to his new job, Violante said he’s had to move quickly to settle in.

“There are hundreds of matters that are ongoing here,” he said. “(Former District Attorney) Matt Murphy’s cases didn’t just stop on Dec. 31, so I’m trying to fit in where I can and learn a little. This is an incredibly busy office.”

While Violante said he doesn’t expect to make dramatic changes in the operation of his office, there is one place where he hopes to improve prosecutorial efficiency. He plans to assign a full-time assistant district attorney to the City of Niagara Falls and stop “rotating” ADAs into the busiest criminal court in the county.

“(Niagara Falls) City Court needs someone full time,” Violante said. “It is far too busy not to have someone there who knows the day in and day out responsibilities. It will be more efficient.”

Violante stresses the need for his office to be efficient, because despite an exploding caseload he says he doesn’t expect more resources to handle those cases.

“The efficiency of the office has to be priority one. Pete Smolinski (the chairman of the County Legislature’s Community Safety and Security Committee) already told me, ‘Good luck Mike, but don’t ask me for any more money’,” Violante said. “I’m not like (Erie County District Attorney) Frank Clark who has a staff where he has (assistant DAs) who only work in (Buffalo) City Court, some only work in the town courts and then he has a more seasoned staff to work the county courts. Every one of our kids work City Court, chip in on the town courts and try felony cases.”

So Violante will try to take the experience he gained in his time sparing with prosecutors to improve the way those same ADAs work now.

“I think like any situation, the influence I intend to have will be colored to a great extent by my experience as a criminal defense attorney,” he said. “I’ll have my ideas on trial strategy, after having tried hundreds of cases over the last 37 years.”

The only change in approach that Violante would tip his hand involves the prosecution of some drunken driving cases.

The state legislature has created a crime known as aggravated driving while intoxicated. The charge can be applied when a driver registers a blood alcohol level of more the 0.18 percent, a full percentage point higher the legal limit for driving.

“We’re going to start pushing that a little harder,” Violante said. “If the blood alcohol percentage is 0.22 percent or higher, while charge aggravated driving while intoxicated. It’s still a misdemeanor, but the fines are larger and the (driver’s) license revocations are longer.”

Now, all Violante has to do is continue to settle in to his new gig on the prosecutor’s side of the courtroom.

“I think I’m handling it very well,” the new DA said. “I believe I made the right decision for the people of Niagara County. I think I can help these (young) prosecutors and my goal is to make this office as good as it can be.”

Contact reporter Rick Pfeiffer

at 282-2311, ext. 2252.