Niagara Gazette

October 18, 2013

Zona, Destino cleared after county investigation

By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The Niagara County Sheriff's Office has cleared county lawmaker Jason Zona and Niagara Falls attorney Johnny Destino of any wrongdoing following an investigation into an allegation of absentee ballot fraud in the race for the legislature's 5th District seat. 

In a release issued Friday, the sheriff's office announced that it found no evidence of criminal activity after investigators, working with the Niagara County District Attorney's Office, examined records from the county board of elections and conducted interviews with individuals tied to the case. 

"After a review of all information gathered it was determined that no criminal wrongdoing occurred," the sheriff's department said in a statement. "The investigation has been closed." 

Both Niagara County Republican Party Chairman Scott Kiedrowski and Niagara Falls Republican Committee Chairperson Pat Castillo called for a criminal probe into the handling of an absentee ballot obtained for a Conservative Party voter before the Sept. 10 primary. The leaders of both committees accused Zona and Destino, both Democrats, of obtaining the absentee ballot by fraudulent means. 

Their accusations were supported with an affidavit from a registered Conservative from the Town of Niagara who claimed a man she thought was Destino visited her home with a completed absentee ballot and encouraged her to sign it. Republicans charged that the move was made in an effort to "manipulate" her vote.

Questions were also raised about a box on the ballot pertaining to the reason for the need to vote by absentee. The voter indicated that she believed the box, marked "temporary illness," may have been checked after she signed, with Republicans suggested either Zona or Destino, or both, had something to do with it. 

Zona and Destino denied the allegations, with Destino claiming he never visited the voter's home on the day in question. 

Ultimately, the women's absentee ballot was invalidated when she went to the polls on Primary Day and voted for Zona's opponent, Giulio Colangelo, who went on to win the Conservative primary. 

The investigation followed a decision announced earlier this year by Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita in a case involving another allegation of petition fraud, this time against Republican and Niagara County Legislature Clerk Mary Jo Tamburlin. Democrats had accused Tamburlin of filing fraudulent nominating petitions for Colangelo. Sedita, who took over the case after Niagara County District Attorney Michael Violante recused himself, found no evidence of criminal intent in the Tamburlin matter. 

On Friday, Zona said he was confident his name would ultimately be cleared, charging that all of the allegations were politically motivated. He again insisted Destino, who was formerly a registered Republican, never visited the home of the voter in question and suggested he too was pulled into the matter for political reasons. 

"There's no surprise at all," Zona said, referring to the outcome of the investigation. "There has never been any evidence. To this day, nobody has told me what we were allegedly violating. It's another political out of desperation. This was nothing more than the Republican political hacks in a desperate move to hurt my name."