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Use of County Seal by Poloncarz for
Political Purposes Questioned

By Darryl McPherson

Erie County Executive
Mark C. Poloncarz
Is this website a violation of the Erie County Code?
Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw

Is County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz misusing the county seal by utilizing it on his campaign website? That is essentially the question being posed by local attorney Peter A. Reese to County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw. Reese sent a letter to the Comptroller last week after discovering the seal positioned on top of the “Poloncarz for Erie County” website (http://markpoloncarz.com/).

The political website features photos of Poloncarz acting in his official capacity as county executive and serves as a gateway to contact and contribute money to the campaign. In the letter, Reese states, “The County Seal is clearly the property for the County of Erie and is to be used for official purposes only.” Citing the County Code as back-up, he claims, “The use of this seal for personal gain by the County Executive is unauthorized, improper, inappropriate and outrageous.”

In an exclusive interview, Reese said if this type of use is allowed, then anyone would be free to use the seal. “What’s to stop someone from marketing male thongs with the county seal on the front? Or putting a door magnet on my car with the county seal and “County of Erie” in big letters and “official taxpayer” in small letters underneath? Where is the authorization? Did he authorize himself?”

The proper use of an official seal by elected officials has historically been a sticking point. Last year, two Niagara Falls councilmembers found themselves under fire for how they used the city seal. Sam Fruscione contended that he mistakenly used stationary containing the city seal when he announced his intention to run for reelection. Charles Walker used official letterhead for a character reference letter addressed to a United States District Judge on behalf of a convicted drug trafficker prior to sentencing. United States Attorney William Hochul Jr. chided the councilman, who apologized for the mistake.

Reese’s allegation could have serious consequences. Section 1.05 (c) of the County Code provides, “Such seal shall be used for all authorized and requisite purposes.” If Reese is correct that seal constitutes county property and cannot be used for political purposes or personal gain, then Poloncarz may run afoul of the County Code of Ethics.

Local Law No. 10 (1989) put in place the current Code of Ethics. Section 6 (g) states, “No elected official, county officer or employee shall…utilize any county equipment, materials, supplies or property for personal gain or benefit, with the exception of incidental use.” Subdivision (i) goes on to state, “in addition to any penalty contained in any other provision of law, any person who shall knowingly and intentionally violate this section may be fired, suspended or removed from office or employment in the manner provided by law.”

Reese says that he has been engaged with a deputy county attorney through social media in relation to this matter. “So I know Poloncarz is aware of my complaint.” In the letter, Reese asks Mychajliw to address the misuse of county property and to seek corrective action.

“We take the allegation very seriously,” says Comptroller Mychajliw. He wants to be use that the issue is “thoroughly and properly investigated” and has reached out to the Chairman of the County Board of Ethics Steven Schwartz. In a letter sent to the Board Monday morning, Mychajliw has determined that the issue is beyond his jurisdiction as County Comptroller. He would like the matter to be addressed at the Board’s next meeting on April 4th.

When asked to comment, the County Executive’s Press Secretary Peter Anderson stated, “As you may know, there is nothing in the Erie County Administrative code prohibiting the use of the County seal on a campaign website; you may also know that EC Legislator Ed Rath also has the seal on his website, while EC Sheriff Howard has a picture of himself in uniform and with badge on his website. Other counties may have prohibitions on such usage, but the EC Legislature has not seen fit to address this here. Mr. Reese seems to be trying to make political hay out of what is a non-issue. Additionally, the legality of this was reviewed by the EC Attorney's office; not only does the Comptroller not have any authority here (including involving the County Ethics Committee), but the Committee has no role in this.”

Reese was surprised by the impugning of his motives. “I’m making political hay? He’s the one seeking donations. It seems we have a guy who’s lost all sense of propriety.”

This is not the first time Reese has questioned the use of an official seal. In 2009, Reese felt Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown’s use of the city seal on invitations to his State of the City address was improper since the luncheon speech was also a fundraiser for his non-profit charity. City Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo did not believe the seal was misused in that situation, but noted that he would feel differently if the usage benefited the mayor’s political campaign. The City’s Board of Ethics recommended that the Mayor no longer use the seal for charitable events.

For now, to resolve the matter, Reese is asking Poloncarz to “cease and desist” from using the county seal and he would like “an acknowledgement that county property should not be used for non-governmental purposes.”

As of this past weekend, the website was still live and actively collecting money. Reese was able to donate one cent to the campaign through the site, along with a message, “Stop using County property to raise campaign money.”



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

Mar 11, 2014