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By Mike Hudson

In a move that outraged many, indicted Niagara County Legislator James Ward was reappointed to his seat on the Legislature's Public Safety committee last week. That committee oversees both the county sheriff's department and the district attorney's office, whose investigations led to charges of official misconduct being brought against him.

"It's like having the fox guard the chicken coop," one disgusted local lawman said. "Something like this could only happen in Niagara County."

Ward, a Republican, also was reappointed by the Legislature's Republican Chairman Clyde Burmaster to head up the Administration Committee. It was as the head of that committee that Ward became enmeshed in the Board of Elections pay scandal, ultimately leading to his grand jury indictment.

He stands accused of helping Republican Commissioner Michael Norris and Democratic Commissioner Judy Cirifalco cover up the fact that they were being paid $3,000 a year more than had been budgeted by the Legislature.

County Democratic Chairman Nick Forster, who works for the sheriff's department, said he was appalled by the appointments.

"This is government at its worst," he said. "I've never seen such poor leadership in two decades of political involvement."

Forster's counterpart, Republican Party Chairman Henry Wojtasdek, disagreed.

"I would hope that people give the benefit of the doubt and find out what happens with the criminal case," he said. "Are these people the judge and jury all rolled into one?"

Legislator Robert Seger said Democratic lawmakers cautioned Burmaster about Ward's appointments.

"The caucus and myself are unsettled by it," he said. "I thought we had made that perfectly clear."

Ward's appointments demonstrate Burmaster's "political arrogance and total disregard for integrity in Niagara County government," Seger added.

While Burmaster said he believes a person is "innocent until proven guilty," the only other person indicted in the pay scandal, Cirifalco, lost her job as Democratic Commissioner after the first of the year.

The Republican Commissioner, Michael Norris, avoided indictment in the tawdry affair under a grant of immunity in exchange for testimony. He also was reappointed to his position.

Under the advice of her attorney, Cirifalco declined comment on the case. She long has maintained her innocence, and said the real story surrounding the scandal will come out once the charges against her are cleared up, probably sometime in February.

District Attorney Matt Murphy said Ward didn't attempt to intervene during the investigation that led to his indictment.

"He was on the Public Safety Committee last year and he hasn't done anything that would interfere with our activities," Murphy said.

Sheriff Tom Beilein, who will run for re-election in November, said he was staying out of the matter.

"I've never complained about who was on my committee, and I'm certainly not going to get in the middle of this now," he said.

Forster was less circumspect.

"You've got a guy who's under indictment by a grand jury sitting on a committee that has oversight on the office which is prosecuting him," he said. "It stinks to high heaven."